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Column 457carpeted by the Secretary of State for Defence, and that the air chief "said sorry to Portillo". That is what the quote says. I am not drifting from protocol.
I wrote to the Prime Minister, asking him to confirm whether Sir Michael was referring to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and, if so, would he sack him? Of course, the Prime Minister did not reply. I presume that the letter went across his desk, but he never noticed it. Ten days later I got a reply from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, saying that it was all misplaced media comment. We did ask for that speech but were refused by the Ministers.
Mr. Martlew : Obviously, only Conservative Members are invited to the Air League. Perhaps the Air League will take some cognisance of that fact. We would then have had the true picture in the House. So much for the Chief Secretary fighting those who attack fine British institutions. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that there is no finer British institution than the Royal Air Force. The scandal does not stop there. As though that was not bad enough--a Treasury Minister trying to undermine the armed forces--it must be untenable when advisers to the Secretary of State for Defence are implicated. On 10 November, The Daily Telegraph said :
"Last night it emerged that an article written by Mr. David Hart, right- wing adviser to Mr. Rifkind, may have triggered off a recent press report which claimed there are too many generals, admirals and air marshals and also making unfavourable comparisons between the RAF and the Israeli Air Force."
That was by an adviser to the Secretary of State. What did the Secretary of State do? Did he get him in and carpet him? Did he sack him? Did he get him to write an apology to the air marshal? Not a bit. He is still advising the Secretary of State. He is still allowed to spread his poison.
Mr. Hardy : Is not that the second example of political failure to defend the armed forces? The armed forces cannot be responsible for fighting a political battle, in a direct sense. The Government allow a savage attack on the history and tradition of the Royal Air Force, as they did at the time of the Harris memorial, and allow repeated and quite ill- informed or mischievous articles comparing the Royal Air Force with the Israeli Air Force, when the comparison is simply preposterous. It is irritating for the services when their political masters sit on their hands instead of speaking up clearly for them.
Mr. Martlew : My hon. Friend is right. If the Secretary of State had any decency, he would have sacked his adviser and then taken his resignation to the Prime Minister. I shall quote again from "A Tale of Two Cities". Perhaps he could have said :
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done". That is what we should have done. I have seen the video. Unlike the hon. Member for Harrow, East, I do not have problems with big words. It is time for the Government to resign. The country and its armed forces need a Government who will review foreign policy objectives, then reveal our defence commitments and needs and provide the necessary resources and support to those who are given responsibility for the defence of the nation. What we need is a Labour Government--and Parliamentary Private Secretaries who can deliver letters on time.
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Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) : I have not yet intervened in the speeches from the two Front Benches, so I feel unusually virtuous. Having begun to feel, like other Conservative Members, that perhaps some newspapers were right recently and that the Government's classic mid-term unpopularity, which we are going through temporarily, was perhaps slightly more than that and was a deeper trough, and having heard the so-called savage attack of the Labour Front Bench on defence, I do not think that the Government have anything to worry about on this matter, or in any other broad main policy areas. I have never heard such a feeble speech as that from the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). It is preposterous nonsense, first, to suggest that senior service chiefs, rather than politicians, should decide policy matters concerning the size of our armed forces. I have never yet met a general or air marshall who said that his forces should be smaller. We all know that to be the classic truth of defence history. Secondly, as a result of the end of the cold war, the Government would have been rightly criticised if they had not taken important measures of cost reduction and economies in various fields as a result of that changing reality.
For the Labour party suddenly overnight to pretend to be the friend of our defence forces and service men and women is a preposterous piece of nonsense. Most people in the services know that, and therefore we can dismiss its arguments with the contempt that they deserve.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will be able to reply later on the subject of the local closure of a base in my constituency. There have been good references in the speeches so far to the debt that we owe the Royal Air Force and its marvellous history and role, which we are celebrating this year as well as next year, and all the things that we owe those men and women who serve in it. I am second to none in adding my words to that.
In my constituency, everybody has been immensely proud to have had for many years two RAF bases--Bentley Priory and Stanmore Park. The Battle of Britain was directed from Bentley Priory. I think that my hon. Friends the Ministers of State for Defence Procurement and for the Armed Forces have visited it. It is an historic and moving site, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), who has also visited it on a number of occasions, knows full well. All base closures are regrettable, particularly if job losses are involved and if they involve civilians. I do not say that in any anti-service men and women sense, but there is a risk now that the cold war has ended that the number of service jobs will decline. Many people in the defence forces realistically accept that, but the trouble is that we are in a time of high unemployment nationally, so it is a painful thing for anybody to contemplate.
A number of closures have been referred to in the debate. In the case of the impending closure of RAF Stanmore Park, the situation is different. If my hon. Friend the Minister has a chance to refer to it in his winding-up speech, I hope that he will reassure us that there will be no job losses. I believe that the position with the RAF is that redeployment will take place. The affected numbers on that site have already been reduced.
Column 459As my hon. Friend the Minister and I know, as do others who follow this closely, there will be redeployment to Bentley Priory, whose functions will be augmented by taking some of the Stanmore Park activity. In that case, the local community is not reacting in a sense of traditional dismay at the closure of a much-loved RAF base, although it has a long history and there is considerable pride in it in the area, not least because the RAF personnel there in recent years have been doing a lot of hearts and minds work of a lasting quality--charity work, helping with the local community and helping disabled people. There are many other examples, but I will not go into them because of the time. They have had a close relationship with the local community.
Apart from that, the acceptance of the closure in the area is positive, and slightly wider, too. It makes sense to have the rationalisation of the base closure with RAF Bentley Priory, as it is so close--it is up Stanmore hill. It is a large green belt site, where it is possible to expand some of the facilities. I will refer to that in a moment. There is a welcome for the closure of the site, because its alternative use in future will be exciting for our local community in the borough of Harrow and in Harrow, East.
Apart from five or six acres of open space and recreational ground, the site will be designated for housing, which I hope will be high-quality housing. I have to hand the development brief for RAF Stanmore Park, with which, being a local authority matter, I shall not tax my hon. Friend the Minister of State too much because it would not be his job to respond to such points.
I wish to ask my hon. Friend to reassure me, generally and on the background and the latest developments, about the closure plans of the RAF, MOD and Property Services Agency and to bring us up to date on that and, in particular, individual considerations.
First, I wish to mention the historical background because the closure of RAF Stanmore Park means that that large and attractive site will, at long last, after almost 60 years, be returned to the local community. It was first taken for defence use by the then Air Ministry in 1936 as the war clouds were looming and gathering over Europe and Britain.
In those days, because controls were inadequate, the marvellous old Stanmore Park house on that site was torn down overnight, a famous and notorious occasion, by Ministry of Defence operatives. When the inhabitants of Stanmore, in those days a leafy village of great beauty, woke up the following morning, the whole magic house at Stanmore Park had been torn down virtually without warning. Mercifully, that kind of thing does not happen nowadays.
The local community is gathering back this important site for housing, and that is much to be welcomed. The borough plan has the objective and target of 4,500 houses during the next 10 years, so this will provide an important site for housing in the borough. In the meantime, the RAF, MOD and PSA have a responsibility, which the Minister of State therefore also enjoys, to ensure that the site, when it is transferred from defence to civilian hands, whatever applicant purchaser eventually ends up with it--it may be more than one entity or development company--is handed over in good order and properly. That is of considerable concern to people in the local community. There is an agreement between the local authority and RAF representatives to preserve trees
Column 460on the site and to ensure that no damage is done in the realisation, disposal and evacuation of the site, which should take place by November 1995.
Those and other matters, and the dismantling of the existing RAF buildings, some of which are quite large, should be clarified. I should be grateful if the Minister would do that either today, or partly today, because I have not given him prior notice of this, and perhaps in subsequent correspondence if I deem it right to send him a letter, depending on what he has a chance to say in the debate. Reverberating from the closure of RAF Stanmore Park is the augmentation of facilities at RAF Bentley Priory, which is much to be welcomed. That is a great boost to the morale of RAF personnel on the Bentley Priory site, an important strategic site, now with underground facilities about which, for obvious reasons, I shall not go into detail here. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to deal with the job increases that will occur as a result and the configuration of RAF plans and activities that will be outlined in the expansion of Bentley Priory.
Above all, from the point of view of my constituents, I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that the transitional work of augmentation, and the conclusion for that base when it is expanded, does not mean a significant increase in the nuisance effect for local residents. In fact, no increase at all would be acceptable. The residents have been patient. So far, physical facilities on the site have been expanded, including two radio masts whose location and size have resulted in some controversy, and there are other aspects as well.
The site is problematical in that, although there is plenty of acreage, certain pockets are already beginning to look full. For some reason, the RAF seems to be concentrating its new installations and physical buildings on the edges, near the roads and the residential houses that surround that site, rather than further in where they would be less of a nuisance in terms of noise.
Will there be a significant increase in helicopter sites? I accept that they are essential to the RAF's function, but they have already been somewhat of a nuisance, at least to residents and sometimes more widely than that. Therefore, the more that my hon. Friend can reassure me on the closure of RAF Stanmore Park and on the expansion of RAF Bentley Priory-- once again, I pay tribute to the RAF for what it has achieved over the years on both sites--the happier I shall be. I shall be in further touch with my hon. Friend, and I shall return later to the debate--I have another engagement--to hear what he has to say about these matters.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : It was my intention to begin by extolling the virtues of single service debates, but when I look around--I do not exclude my party from what I am about to say--those advantages appear to be rather less obvious to all but the 18 or 19 of us who are present at this stage.
The single service debate provides a particular advantage with regard to procurement. It is apposite that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement should reply to the debate. I doubt whether there has ever been a time in the history of the RAF when the procurement decisions that had to be made were more acute and were likely to have longer lasting effect.
Column 461For example, the Eurofighter 2000 is expected to see service for at least 30 years into the next century. I sometimes think that the procurement decisions are of much greater long- term significance than manpower decisions because, for example, the recruitment and training of fast jet pilots can be much more easily and quickly accomplished than the development or production of a fast jet for them to fly. Procurement decisions become more and more difficult to reverse because such is the pace of technical advance that, if a particular capability is given up, it is almost impossible to regain it, or regaining it would be possible only at disproportionate cost. Where a capability is given up and reliance is placed on foreign manufacture, the continued availability of equipment and spares will depend on the political attitudes of the supplying country. Some may remember that, in the immediate post- election period when the debate about the future of the European fighter aircraft, as it was then known, was at its height, some argued for the purchase of the SU27. There is no question but that that is an outstanding aircraft, but one would have to anticipate rather more optimistically what was likely to happen in Russia before one would believe that one could guarantee the spare parts and the equipment that would be necessary if one adopted that aircraft as fulfilling the needs of the RAF. The reference to Eurofighter 2000 provides an obvious opportunity on which to restate the case for that aircraft. The arguments in favour of it remain as persuasive as ever. It is right that we should maintain the manufacturing capability that Eurofighter 2000 necessarily represents. We must also remember that some of the technology may have a civilian application and be worth while for that. But the primary need is for an agile fighter with which the RAF can fulfil the air defence-ground attack role, particularly when one has regard to the third task which is identified in the defence estimates for the current year.
In future operations outside the United Kingdom, in which we may increasingly be called upon to participate, the RAF's task will be to protect friendly forces against hostile air attack. One thing is certain and that is that there is no shortage of modern combat aircraft on the international market which will make it possible for the air forces in unstable parts of the world to be extremely well equipped.
We know that derivatives of the SU27 and the MiG29 are already under development. It does not take any particular political perception to conclude that, if Russia is anxious, first, to continue a sphere of influence, and, secondly, to acquire hard currency, the uninhibited export of aircraft of that calibre to those who are willing to purchase them is likely to be a policy that Russia will follow. If we expect to be able to participate in international operations--including United Nations operations--the RAF must have an aircraft that is capable of matching its potential opponents. Anything less would create a considerable disadvantage for the aircrew on which we would call.
As the Minister will know, some apprehension is felt about the project. Already, after four speeches, he has been asked to reply to a substantial number of questions, but I hope that, if he cannot deal with the points that I am about
Column 462to raise in his response this evening, he will be able to do so by means of a letter, or some other method of communication. Can the Minister tell us the current estimated cost per copy of the aircraft? There is some dispute about that in the technical press. Is it true that there have been cost overruns of as much as DM500 million in the development phase? Following the software difficulties experienced by the Gripen--which, at one stage, was considered to be a candidate for the RAF--what is the up-to-date position with regard to the flight-control software for the Eurofighter? I believe that the predicted flight date is April 1994. Is that still a firm date? I do not wish to leave the question of procurement without referring to either the Hercules replacement or the support helicopter, both of which have been mentioned today in speeches and interventions. If we are to do more in what might be briefly described as the United Nations area, the greater the out-of-area activity, the greater will be the strain on the transport resources of the RAF.
Marshalls of Cambridge is carrying out a study to determine whether the Hercules should be refurbished or replaced, and it is only right to await the results of that study ; however, I would require considerable persuasion to accept that we should wait until the year 2000, or beyond, for the future large aircraft. I say that as one who is on record as arguing--in the House--the case for common defence procurement within Europe. I believe that to continue until the year 2000 without moving to an alternative aircraft would place unnecessary strain on the RAF's transport resources.
Mr. Mans : Would not that virtually guarantee that, beyond the year 2000, the RAF will be equipped with an aircraft whose basic airframe was designed in the 1950s? Would not the study do better to compare the costs of the C130J throughout its life--up to the year 2030, or even 2040--with the costs of refurbishing existing aircraft, enabling them to last until the FLA was available?
Mr. Campbell : I do not argue with anything that the hon. Gentleman has said ; he has considerable knowledge and experience of these matters. I will say, however, that the Hercules has a reliable and proven design, and- -as has been pointed out--British companies such as Westland and Dowty would have an important part to play in the development of the C130J.
Important industrial issues are also involved. We should consider the extent to which Government funding forms a component of the discussion and, indeed, the ultimate decision. I am keeping an open mind, although what I am about to say may contradict that claim : I do not believe that we should wait until the year 2000, given that there is no guarantee that the FLA will actually fly.
I do not think that development costs can be ignored in any future aircraft considerations. No one knows what the costs of developing the new aircraft will be. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked about the possible overrun on the Eurofighter 2000. All experience of modern military aircraft suggests that considerable extra costs can be incurred during the development phase. Clearly, putting an aircraft "on the shelf" will not involve that problem.
Mr. Campbell : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We should not pretend that the decision is easy, but I remain convinced that the onus is on those who argue for the FLA. It is up to them to prove beyond reasonable doubt--if I may use a legal phrase--that it is appropriate.
Mr. Hardy : May I join the chorus of agreement with the hon. and learned Gentleman's thesis? Surely, if there is to be a delay, we are entitled to hope that, on the frequent flights of the Hercules to Sarajevo airport when dramatic landings must be arranged, pilots and crew will be accompanied by Ministers of the Crown. On many occasions, we would welcome the resultant by-elections, and the reassurance of companionship that such flights would provide.
That leads me quite naturally to the issue of the support helicopter. When its history comes to be written, I doubt that it will be regarded as a paradigm of good procurement. The most recent chapter of the story is yet another study of the mix between the Chinook and the EH101. I doubt very much that Lord Younger--as he now is--anticipated the delay that has occurred since his announcement on a date in 1987, which has already been mentioned. I also suspect that little enthusiasm would be expressed in the armed services committee of the Senate or, indeed, in the House of Representatives on Capitol hill about a similar contest between Boeing and Westland. I hope that the Government will take due account not only of capability but of the national interest that would be served if the EH101 were to predominate in the mix of 25, as opposed to the Chinook.
Let me deal briefly with two other matters connected with procurement. One is the low-level laser-guided bomb ; the other is the conventionally armed stand-off missile, which has already been mentioned. The RAF requires those systems, for different reasons. I hope that an early decision can be made, so that firm contracts are available for both.
A further issue arises from the RAF's current operations in Bosnia. I suspect that the matter goes a little beyond the remit of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, but it has raised a number of anxieties. I refer to the means by which authorisation of air strikes in Bosnia would be effected and the time that it would take for permission to be given. I understand that the chain would be something like this. A request would come from forward air controllers on the ground with the troops ; that request would go to the air operations co-ordination centre at Kisseljak. From there--with the good will of the commander of the Bosnia-Herzegovina command--it would go to the UNPROFOR commander in Zagreb. It would then go to the United Nations civilian head, also in Zagreb, and from there to the United Nations Secretary-General. That could reasonably be described as a rather extended order of command.
It has been suggested that a recent trial took six hours to produce a reply from New York. One of the outgoing United Nations generals has expressed considerable apprehension. Let me put the point in a domestic context, however. If United Nations forces--by which, of necessity, I mean British forces on the ground--required close air support for their defence, which is not
Column 464improbable, surely the availability of such support must be much more direct. We must do better than six hours' notice.
The matter may fall well outside the remit of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and I should not expect him to deal with something so technical, but we are entitled to expect the Government to deal with it, not only in the interests of the United Nations but for the sake of protecting our own forces on the ground.
I was pleased that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces referred to RAF operations in the northern and southern exclusion zones of Iraq. Little mention has been made of the aircrew there recently, but they are carrying out an extremely important United Nations mission, and I should not like to bet that they will never see action in either of those theatres. During a debate such as this, it is right to recognise their substantial contribution to the international order.
Once issues of procurement have been dealt with and constituency matters have been raised, it is right to turn our attention to the role that we envisage for the RAF. Until the end of the cold war, the RAF had prepared for two principal tasks : first, the air defence of the United Kingdom over the North sea and, secondly, low-level counter air offensive against airfields of the Warsaw pact. The first task has been greatly reduced and the second has been virtually eliminated, so what do we now envisage as the RAF's role? Let us approach the matter first from a negative angle. I welcome the announcement, made not in the House but in a speech by the Secretary of State to an outside body, of the abandonment of the tactical air-to-surface missile. I checked when I had first raised the issue in the House and discovered that in June 1990 I made a speech in which I had questioned the need for it and its utility. Once the cold war was over and once NATO's nuclear doctrine became one of minimum deterrence and we had the assertion that nuclear weapons would be used as weapons of the last resort, the need for TASM was removed.
TASM was a system designed for the doctrine of flexible response and the need for it was predicated on the requirement to break up massive tank formations of the Warsaw pact if they streamed across the inner German border. Once Trident is operational, we shall have a tactical capability if we require it. That leads me to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) : what is the justification for continuing with the WE177 after Trident becomes fully operational with the tactical alternative that we know can be provided? Why is it necessary to continue with free-fall bombs to the year 2006--the most recent estimate--if we expect Trident to be in service by the year 2000 and providing the tactical element after 2006?
Another fundamental matter that should be considered is how strong is the justification for a continued RAF presence at its present level in Germany? If we are looking for savings that do not adversely affect capability, should we not now seriously consider reducing not the number of squadrons but the number of squadrons stationed in Germany? They were there to do damage to the countries of the Warsaw pact but, at the NATO summit last week, we were talking about a partnership for peace with virtually all those countries and to some of them we said that NATO membership might not be too far away. In those
Column 465circumstances, should not we examine with some rigour the justification for the continued stationing of RAF squadrons in Germany?
One thing that emerged from the RAF's experience in the Gulf war was that there was a compelling need for flexibility. Hon. Members with an interest in the matter will remember that low-level operations proved too costly and, as a result, tactics had to be varied. Thereafter, the operations were carried out from medium altitude. To be effective, however, we had to introduce the rather curious marriage between the Buccaneers and the Tornados until the thermal imaging airborne laser designator pods could be fitted to some of the Tornados. When considering the future role of the Royal Air Force, it is essential to build in the necessary flexibility rather than having to overcome obstacles to it once operations have commenced.
On this occasion, it is the convention to pay tribute to the men and women of the Royal Air Force. I have a particular reason for doing so because, apart from my duties as my party's defence spokesman, RAF Leuchars is located in my constituency where 43 and 111 Squadrons are stationed, although, sadly, that is no longer the case for the Wessex flight of 22 Squadron. That means that I have occasion to meet men and women of all ranks and I continue to be impressed by their qualities and skills. They are brave men and women who do dangerous things as a matter of routine. They are not saints and would not claim to be. At the moment, they seem to show a remarkable realism about their changing environment.
I think that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces spoke of the stoic good humour of the men and women in the RAF. He should understand that there is, nevertheless, greater apprehension than he acknowledged. I do not want to enter into the controversy over what the Commander-in-Chief said at a meeting of the Air League--that has been sufficiently aired for the purposes of this debate--but my contacts with the men and women of the RAF and, indeed, of the other services, lead me to believe that they have great sympathy for what the Commander-in-Chief was reported as having said. That reflects the fact that they are apprehensive about the way in which the RAF's role will develop in the future. It is our duty to pay more than lip service to the qualities of the man and women of the RAF. They deserve well of us, and it is the duty of the House to see that they get it.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : This is the last debate on the Royal Air Force in which I shall speak as a serving member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, not because I want to stop being a member but because I shall reach retirement on 20 February and will be put out to grass and have to hang up my boots, or whatever it is that one does. However, I shall not be hanging up my flying suit because I shall manage to find ways to get into the air.
I enter into the debate with a sad heart because I care very deeply about the Royal Air Force and, in present circumstances, it cannot be described as a happy service. Why do I say that? "Options for Change" was the result of changes that had taken place in the Soviet Union. We all know what those changes were, so I shall not go into detail.
Column 466"Options for Change" produced what has been described--by others, not by me--as a peace dividend. I am still looking around the world to see where the peace is.
Massive reductions in the RAF's operational capabilities resulted from "Options for Change". Many have already mentioned the massive 40 per cent. reduction in the strike capability and the reduction of about 30 per cent. in the air defence capability. They are massive reductions by any standards and they are linked to the closure of 15 major bases in Germany and the United Kingdom and a huge decrease in personnel. The changes have occurred in a relatively short time and anyone who has had any experience of dramatic changes in business or in the forces will know what impact they can have.
Because of the reductions in assets and personnel, the RAF of today is a substantially reduced force. No one can deny that "Options for Change" has created massive turbulence throughout the service and has greatly sapped morale. It would be wrong to pretend otherwise. Introducing the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the RAF now had a carefully calculated capability, which was adequate to meet the envisaged possible threat. I shall have something to say later about that envisaged possible threat.
I assume that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and his colleagues believe that they are right in what they are doing. I do not share that belief, but, as my hon. Friend does, can he and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement give me a categorical assurance that he and his colleagues acknowledge that the RAF now needs a period of stability? That is needed more than anything.
In the early 1930s, as everyone knows, we experienced a period of peace. We were enjoying the dividends of peace. In 1930, no one had heard of Adolf Hitler, but, by 1940, Adolf Hitler had created a massive military machine-- a huge luftwaffe--and had occupied most of Europe. Today, in the former Soviet Union, there exists a military machine with a nuclear and conventional capability that can only be described as horrendous. In Russia, the recent elections have produced a large number of narrow nationalist Members of Parliament and there is just a possibility that the leader of those narrow nationalists could be elected as the next President of Russia. That is a possibility--I do not put it any higher.
What is frightening, however, is that whoever is the next President of Russia will have massive powers that were created by the new constitution that was introduced by the existing President. Even Stalin would have envied the powers that he will achieve constitutionally. The Ukraine has the world's third largest nuclear force. Everyone is aware of the Russian narrow nationalist declaration--the aim of those nationalists to restore to Russia all the territory of the former USSR. That includes the Ukraine. When linked with the re-emergence of narrow right-wing nationalists in Germany--there is a real possibility that Nazis will be elected to the German Parliament this year--can anyone predict who will be in charge in the Kremlin next year or in two years' time, or what the Governments of the Ukraine and Germany, whoever they are, will feel about the circumstances at that time?
Yet we in the United Kingdom and our allies in north America continue to disarm. We continue to claim that the RAF can absorb the reductions imposed by "Options for Change", the reductions that followed "Options for
Column 467Change" and, worse still, the massive extra reductions that will be brought about, at least in year 3, by the recent Treasury-Ministry of Defence discussions.
Will current changes in the former Soviet Union bring about a new option--a rearmament option? Is that the reality of having a Royal Air Force that is equipped to meet the envisaged need or threat? Earlier, it was said that one can train people more quickly and effectively than one can purchase the right type of equipment, and, of course, that is true, because the lead time for modern aircraft weapon systems is long. If we are to meet an envisaged threat in five years' time, we have to plan and equip today to meet it. It will be too late if we wait five years to see what happens. Will our children ever forgive us if we walk down the road of our predecessors of the 1930s? I doubt it.
That is why, in this debate, I cannot be upbeat, although I wish that I could be. Nor am I saying that we are being Treasury-led or repeating any of the other glib things that are said. The whole western world is living in a dream land. The world today is more unstable than it was during the cold war. The balance of terror actually gave us peace in Europe. It may not have been a very pleasant thing to contemplate, but the truth of it-- the reality--was peace. That is unlikely to be the case in the near future or even in the medium term. We can say with certainty that there will be more territorial disputes and ethnic problems and that throughout the former Soviet Union, there will be continuing problems, carnage and war.
In those circumstances, because of what is happening today in Bosnia, we have glib talks about air strikes. As a former airman, I am always frightened when someone talks glibly about using RAF crews in what are not very carefully thought-out plans. I am reminded of the poor chaps who flew in the battles in 1940 against the bridges in France. Oh yes, they were courageous ; oh yes, they went and attacked the bridges. The fact that they did not come back, and that they got Victoria crosses posthumously, seems to have been overlooked and forgotten. Are we asking our people in the RAF to look forward to a similar scenario? I hope not.
Let me discuss possible air strikes in Bosnia. No Member of Parliament would expect our forces on the ground, if circumstances demanded, not to have air support, but that is not what has been glibly spoken about in the corridors of power, at least at a recent North Atlantic Treaty Organisation meeting. People who spoke there were speaking about air strikes against others to deter. That is not quite what I envisage when we talk about air strikes to defend our chaps on the ground. Those are two quite different things. If one is talking about escalation--that is what it really is if one is talking about air strikes--one needs only to think back to what happened in Vietnam to recall the fact that constant escalation of air strikes did not resolve the problem on the ground.
I will not discuss that aspect in any more detail, other than to say that one should be careful about committing one's service men to circumstances and situations unless their actions have been properly thought out and carefully planned. The one thing that the Gulf war demonstrated clearly was that air power, used properly and effectively, with good planning, can bring about circumstances in which there will be light casualties on the ground. Let us, however, consider the resources that were deployed to achieve that--and no one can suggest to me that, wherever we wish to carry out an exercise of that type, we can deploy
Column 468such resources without the United States being there, both in the air and on the ground. It cannot be done. That is why we should be very careful when we speak about it.
I shall now discuss procurement. Of course, the Royal Air Force must have the Eurofighter 2000 and, of course, it will be required in the numbers that have been envisaged, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) pointed out in an intervention, it is replacing not one aircraft but a number of aircraft.
I too am worried about the problems that we have encountered over helicopter procurement. They should be resolved as soon as possible. Whatever decision is taken, it should be taken soon, because the delay is wrong for Westland, wrong for the RAF and wrong for anyone who has pledged that we will do something. Since 1987, we have failed to do so.
I believe that it was right, during our previous debate, to speak about the RAF and stand-off weapons. Unlike the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), I regret that the RAF will not have a stand-off nuclear capability, for the reasons that I have given about the instability in the former Soviet Union and the massive nuclear capability that will exist there, when we have no idea who will be in charge. It is a short- term, mistaken financial decision which we may live to regret.
I aslo believe that Ministers were right to say that we would continue with a conventional stand-off capability. In this modern age, as the Gulf war demonstrated, it is high-risk to fly at low level over the target. It is just possible that, especially when attacking targets near to each other, when the targets are all lit up, one will find oneself silhouetted against the sky--a sitting target for anyone with even conventional anti-aircraft equipment. Clearly, we want our chaps to have stand-off equipment, and it is right to keep the free-fall WE177 bomb until we have a replacement stand -off weapon. As for the Hercules replacement, I recognise the concerns and fears. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) will acknowledge that no one has been a stronger advocate of buying British than I, but I am concerned with the situation in the Royal Air Force. I do not apologise for that. My first loyalty has always been, and always will be, to my friends and former colleagues who are serving in the RAF. I say to them that if I have any influence it will be directed towards ensuring that the Hercules replacement is the updated modernised Hercules. That can be bought off the shelf and will not cost anything like the probable cost of other replacements. In 10 years' time, if we find that world circumstances demand something else--if there is a real threat or even a war going on--we can deal with that at the time. Today and tomorrow, we have to consider what we are likely to be doing with whatever aircraft the RAF has for that type of activity and duty. Today, that is the Hercules. The Hercules is getting long in the tooth, and it must be replaced. I have no hesitation in saying that the solution is to buy the new, modernised, updated version, the C130J. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement hears me say that.
Now I shall talk about the forces with which I have been directly involved- -the auxiliaries and reserves. I can tell Ministers that it is bad, even desperate, when one chops and changes around with regulars, but it is calamitous if one does that with volunteers and auxiliaries. Many people do not understand about volunteers--although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Dr.
Column 469Goodson-Wickes) does. It is one heck of a commitment to go and fly on behalf of the RAF most weekends, as I have done throughout most of my adult life. First, volunteers have to persuade their families that that is a good thing to do. When other people are going out with their families during the lovely summer days, a volunteer disappears and is not seen all weekend. To do that for one year is something, and so is to do it for five years. To do it for 10, 20 or 30 years is quite an achievement. I have been doing it for damn near 40 years--and I am astonished that my wife is still married to me. She is a remarkable lady. [Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] She is ; any woman who is married to me has to be remarkable.
I want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that by tinkering and chopping and changing, we kill the faith and confidence that are essential if a chap is to go home at weekends and say to his wife and family, "I am doing a good job for my country ; I want to go on doing it." Once that individual is diverted, we shall not get him back. That applies to all territorials and auxiliaries. Those chaps will go off and use their energies elsewhere. Their families will not accept a second dose. In my experience of commanding volunteer units, one cannot get people back once the continuity has been broken, because family pressures will not allow it. There is a tremendous problem if we lose that faith, and we must never forget that when we are dealing with auxiliaries and reserves.
I am sad that we still do not have a proper auxiliary air force of the right sort. I wish that the people who write funny stories about the Israeli air force would remember that Israel is surrounded by enemies. It is not difficult to persuade Israeli employers to let people go away for four or five weeks, and often much longer, every year.
I wonder what British employers would feel if we had to have a conscript air force, largely made up of reservists to be called up at times of hostilities, and we insisted that they did four weeks' training every year. I rather think that there would be a long list of employers complaining ; in fact, they would not accept it. That is why we require a volunteer force only, to back up regular forces that, at times of hostility, are capable of holding the line until the auxiliaries and reserves can come into play.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : The hon. Gentleman knows much more about the reserves than I do. Does he see any lessons to be learnt from the United States experience? Are there any parallels to be drawn that we might usefully apply here?
Mr. Walker : Yes, I wish that the parallel drawn in the newspapers had been between the Royal Air Force and the United States air force. Then we would not have read all that nonsense and dross that has caused all the problems. The United States air force has a worldwide capability. Of course, it is a massive air force, but, like the RAF, it is subject to worldwide demands. The United States, therefore, requires the necessary structures and organisations to motivate and activate their people in all the different parts of the world. That calls for a much greater back-up than does the Israeli air force. Israel does not do anything outside its own borders, except in connection with its neighbours, and all activity takes place from bases in Israel. Israel can therefore have a smaller back- up capability. I want to draw
Column 470attention to the nonsense that has been written, because people are not comparing like with like when they compare our air force with the Israeli air force. I hope that what I have said, and my letter to the newspapers, will deal with that fairy tale being spread by people who know little about real air force matters.
I had an Adjournment debate on the air cadets recently, and I hope that before we make any decisions affecting the air cadets under the programme for financial reductions we shall wait until we have carried out the complete review of all the other activities, including university air squadrons, air force base locations, and so on. If we try to make changes in a haphazard way we may damage the cadets, and we may find that we lose good people. I return to what I have already said about the loss of faith.
If I have a message for my right hon. and hon. Friends in government it is this : they have on their Back Benches a number of hon. Members who will support the Government on defence matters. In many ways, the best people on the Government Back Benches are the people who have a direct involvement and who care. Those individuals would have no difficulty in accepting an increase in expenditure in that one area of Government spending. Many of us feel strongly about balanced budgets, but not at the expense of national security. I am not making a bid because I am wearing an air force lobby hat, or saying that the RAF should have more money because I love the RAF. I say what I say because I believe that world and European circumstances call for us to be extremely careful and prudent about any future reductions. I do not believe that we can meet the requirement of the third year of reductions without reducing the sharp end of our fighting forces, especially the RAF. I could not and would not support any further reductions in the operational front-line capacity of the Royal Air Force.
Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke) : In contrast to the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), I will address a rather narrow issue. However, we all recognise his concern, interest and depth of knowledge in relation to the RAF.
I want to raise an issue which, since the Government set out their plans in "Options for Change", has been a cause of great concern in my constituency, throughout Wales and even in the Republic of Ireland. A range of wider issues are raised about the way in which the Ministry of Defence has managed the RAF's transition since the end of the cold war. A petition of 20,000 signatures in respect of the issue has been presented to the House and it has been raised by Members of the Dail. The issue concerns the closure of RAF Brawdy and the MOD's intention to transfer Brawdy's search and rescue facilities to north Devon.
Several defence bases in my constituency have been closed or announcements have been made to close them. The Milford mine depot has gone with the loss of 250 jobs. Royal Navy armaments depot Trecwn is to close in April 1996, with the loss of 500 jobs. There has been an announcement about Brawdy and the United States naval facility, which is located with RAF Brawdy, is to close in September 1995. However, in addition to the economic problems that we face, the most worrying point is the transfer of search-and-rescue flight B 202 squadron to north Devon.
Column 471In August 1992, tactical weapons training at RAF Brawdy ended and about 80 civilian jobs were lost ; 700 service men, with their £12 million worth of income, were transferred elsewhere. The local economy lost millions of pounds more as the operating expenditure of the base rapidly dwindled. The effect was felt immediately in Haverfordwest, the nearest town to the base. One hundred and one people joined the dole in August 1992, when the base closed. That was obviously a large rise in the number of unemployed people in a town with a significant tourist area adjacent to it. The fact that a significant number of people joined the dole queue at the height of the tourist season was a symptom of the economic impact on the local economy of the closure and the ending of flight training at Brawdy.
Sadly, that effect continues to be felt. Unemployment in my constituency is still rising against the national trend. In August 1992, 4,695 people were unemployed in my constituency. Last month, 5, 632 were unemployed. That is a very significant increase. When the United States Navy leaves Pembrokeshire in September 1995, 70 more civilian jobs will be lost and, perhaps more importantly, the spending power of 450 American service personnel and their families will disappear.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced late last year that the Royal Welch Fusiliers will use RAF Brawdy as temporary accommodation from August 1994 and that the base is being considered for future use as a long-term barracks plot. I welcome that commitment which, initially, will go some way towards putting urgently needed money back into the Pembrokeshire economy with the transfer of those 600 Welsh soldiers and their families to Brawdy this summer.
I was rather disappointed when the Minister said that I had not welcomed the fact that the Royal Welch Fusiliers were to be transferred to Brawdy. He knows very well that I have welcomed them. I wrote to him congratulating him on his decision in which he had considerable personal involvement. However, I urge Ministers to do their utmost to find a long-term use for the accommodation at Brawdy, because Pembrokeshire still desperately needs a long-term commitment in that direction and the income which that will provide. I remain extremely concerned about the way in which the MOD has managed the affair. I am particularly concerned about the closely related issue of search and rescue. It might be helpful to the House if I explain the background. Prior to the redeployment of search and rescue announced in October 1992, the RAF operated 10 Sea King and six Wessex search and rescue helicopters from nine bases around the British coast. The Royal Navy has five helicopters at its three bases. In October 1992, the MOD said that the RAF operational fleet would be reduced to 12 aircraft, all Sea Kings, operating from six bases. The Navy's fleet was to remain unchanged.
Those changes began to be implemented in April 1993 when the Wessex flight at RAF Leuchars was withdrawn. By the middle of 1994, the flight at Manston in Kent is due to transfer to Wattisham in Suffolk while the flight at Coltishall in Norfolk is to be withdrawn. In July, Brawdy's Sea Kings will be transferred to RAF Chivenor in north Devon.
As a result of those changes, by the end of July 1994, four fewer aircraft will be operating from three fewer bases. However, we should be concerned not simply about the reduction in numbers. It is undoubtedly true that the