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Column 500I hope that there can be flexibility up as well as down, and if any new developments require additional manpower or equipment I trust that the Minister of Defence will be able to persuade our financial masters in the Treasury that that must be arranged.
Sadly, the defence debate is not often heard. As the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said earlier, the absence of hon. Members during our debate perhaps reflects the sad lack of interest in such issues throughout the country. Although I say "sad lack of interest", there is a constituency out there that is very concerned about our defence industries and about our defence. It is vital that we have such debates a good deal more often than we do at present. I am very pleased to have been called, even at this late stage in the debate, to represent that constituency to some extent. I do not speak today on behalf of a particular local base, depot or constituency MOD establishment. I trust that I can speak on behalf of the bigger picture and try to explain some of the concerns affecting people of all political persuasions. With such large reductions in defence spending, there is a fear that there is severe overstretch and that the morale of our armed forces personnel is falling. It must be uncontroversial to say that our armed forces are institutions in which Britain has hitherto taken considerable pride.
I regard the defence of the realm as the primary responsibility of Government. Again, I trust that that is not a controversial remark. The discharge of that responsibility involves the triple task of analysing the potential threat, providing a defence capability commensurate with it and co-ordinating defence and foreign policy to ensure that each supports, and does not contradict, the other. Only if there is clarity about the rationale and role of the armed forces, including the RAF, the confidence that it will have the means to fulfil foreseeable assignments and coherence between foreign and defence policies can a national consensus on defence matters be nurtured and the morale of the fighting services be maintained. The main incident in foreign policy and defence terms over the past few years must be what is called the end of the cold war. I believe that that can more accurately be called the end of the third world war. Great issues for debate arise following that change of circumstance, and great questions of foreign policy and defence issues flow from it. They affect our consideration of the RAF just as much as they affect our consideration of the other armed services and the merchant marine.
There are several questions which, at this stage of the evening, I will not ask. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and other hon. Members who take an interest in defence matters will readily have such questions at their finger tips. I believe that those questions were not properly or fully addressed in "Options for Change". Some vital issues were addressed in that document, but it did not deal with all the very interesting and important issues that might have been asked. "Options for Change" set out the savings that it was believed we could make if we no longer had to be prepared for war with the Warsaw pact. However, defence spending in real terms and as a proportion of gross domestic product has been reducing precipitously since the fall of the Berlin wall. In the mid-1980s, as hon. Members have said, defence spending averaged 5 per cent. of GDP. By 1995-96 it will amount to only 3.2 per cent. The most important
Column 501point to bear in mind is that, within that total, the proportion spent on equipment is at its lowest since the 1970s. In the mid-1980s, we spent about 45 to 48 per cent. of the defence budget on equipment. I am told that equipment now accounts for about 39 per cent. of the defence budget and there are signs that it is due to fall as low as 34 per cent.
I can understand the argument : smaller defence forces, smaller RAF, but better equipment. However, I find it difficult to square smaller defence forces with much less equipment. We must address that issue. Can we afford our percentage of equipment spending to fall further when the calibre of our defence forces must be tip top? The RAF will have lost 40 per cent. of its strike attack capability and 30 per cent. of its air defence capability before very long. We cannot simply allow those issues to be glossed over.
I am determined that the House should come to terms with the difficulty of many Conservative Members--I am speaking only for myself at the moment--who are loyal Conservative party and Government supporters, but who on this one issue find themselves in a dilemma. We want a credible defence force and a credible RAF which can meet the commitment that the public and our foreign policy requirements demand of it. It is no good having endless or open- ended commitments throughout the world but trying to meet them on the basis of diminished forces. I would would not mind having a small RAF if we had fewer commitments. But I cannot content myself with wide-ranging commitments with incompetent--I use the word neutrally--forces to deal with the problem. It affects not only our capability to deal with commitments but the morale of those who serve within the forces and those who wish to see the country prosper at home and abroad. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre said that national security is as vital as social security.
Despite the financial exigencies under which the Ministry of Defence has been labouring, nobody doubts for a moment that the Royal Air Force will continue, to the best of its abilities, to defend our shores and our interests overseas, but we must not send RAF personnel to perform tasks that they are no longer equipped to perform. Nothing that I have said is new, and, I dare say, nothing that I have said is original, but some verities demand restatement from time to time. 9.5 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : I apologise for not being present for the opening of the debate. As some hon. Members will know, I had the joy of attending a public inquiry concerning the Boundary Commission.
Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the RAF. I have always found it to be a professional and expert service. If the Government had a fraction of the expertise of the RAF, the country would certainly be flying higher than it is at present and we would not have such appallingly low standards of government.
The JP233 weapon was used in the Gulf war to destroy Iraqi runways. It requires that aircraft fly in a straight line along the length of the runway, and at a constant height.
Column 502That makes the aircraft highly vulnerable. The weapon has been implicated in the loss of Tornados in the Gulf war. The JP233 works by releasing hundreds of "bomblets" on the runway ; some break up the runway surface and others make the job of repairing the runway harder. Although there is no doubt that the JP233 caused the Iraqis problems, it was not the only means of damaging runways. The United States air force attacked roughly the same number of runways as the RAF did and lost not a single aircraft on such missions.
The JP233 is a product of the RAF's obsession with low flying. I said as much in early-day motion 351 in the 1990-91 Session, for which I was greatly criticised. I said that the Tornados
"have become easy prey for maching gun and anti-aircraft fire when operating at low levels"
and were the result of
"the blundering blindspot of Conservative defence ministers obsessed with low flying."
Now, with the clarity of hindsight, I still believe that the facts bear me out.
The JP233 cost millions upon millions of pounds to develop and produce. Nobody other than the Saudis wants it. The Americans did not buy it. Instead, they purchased a French weapon, the Durandal. Anyone who follows United States military politics will appreciate that the purchase of a French weapon is rare. That shows what the Americans think of the JP233. The weapon costs millions of pounds to use because its very nature makes aircraft vulnerable. Each Tornado costs between £25 million and £35 million. The most expensive part of the JP233 is the lives of the pilots. Lives are too valuable to be measured in pounds. But many more lives are currently being affected by that dubious weapon. Some of the JP233's "bomblets" are anti-personnel mines.
Anti-personnel mines, such as part of the JP233, are causing a world-wide blight on humanity, and I support a world-wide ban on their production. Two weeks ago, at Question Time, I asked the Department of Trade and Industry about curtailing the export of land mines. I pointed out that thousands of lives were being lost every week as a result of the use of those mines.
The Minister for Trade replied :
"We have the capability to make land mines that are
self-destructive and self-neutralising as part of a runway denial system, which we believe is a perfectly proper use of land mines in making equipment for defending our forces."--[ Official Report , 12 January 1994 ; Vol. 235, c. 168.]
The sole reason given by the Government for not acting to ban the export of land mines and their design was that they were part of a runway denial system.
The Minister for Trade is a clever man--he insulted Mrs. Thatcher and got away with it because his timing was right--but he is not clever enough to have said that without prompting, and his prompting came from the Ministry of Defence, which uses that fall-back position to try to deflect the argument when people realise that the use of anti-personnel mines is immoral. It is outrageous that the Ministry of Defence is briefing the DTI to stop a ban on immoral weapons by defending a dangerous weapon. That is a major scandal for which the Minister and the MOD should answer.
Column 503The Government should not underestimate the depth of feeling in the House about land mines. Last Monday I tabled early- day motion 361, which calls on the Government immediately to prohibit the export of all anti-personnel mines from the United Kingdom and to ratify the inhumane weapons convention. I wrote that early-day motion at about 9.30 in the evening, and by the time the House rose it had attracted 118 signatures. The current total is 160. That shows the strength of feeling against land mines among Labour Members. I know that there are Conservative Members who feel the same. Bill Deedes--hardly a member of the Labour party --has written a number of articles in Conservative newspapers exposing the land mines policy.
The JP233 should be scrapped immediately and there should be a worldwide ban on anti-personnel mines.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : We have had a wide-ranging debate, covering the changing international scene, key constituency issues of importance to hon. Members, particularly weapons systems, and, of course, basic procurement policies--a matter for the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who is to respond to the debate. I do not know whether I could go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) who proposes that we seek a consensus on defence outside the House and then place it before the parties. It has been apparent during the debate, however, that there are some areas of agreement. Hon. Members have shown a willingness throughout the debate to praise the skills, dedication and commitment of our RAF personnel--although such sentiments from the Government have to be watched carefully because they are often the prelude to cuts. We fear the Government even when they bring praise. It is significant that, so soon after the talk of turning swords into ploughshares and of the peace dividend, every type of RAF aircraft should be in operation somewhere in the world : we have Harriers over north Iraq ; Tornados over south Iraq ; Jaguars, Tornados and E3 AWACS on patrol over Bosnia ; Nimrods monitoring the Gulf and the Adriatic ; and old war horses being used in transport and supply. As the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, the commitments collide with Treasury pressures for further reductions and there is already the fear of overstretch.
The second area of consensus that emerged during the debate was the unpredictability of the international scene as the old certainties of the cold war disappear. The pace of change is perhaps best illustrated by reference to our last three debates on the RAF. In February 1990, Mr. Alan Clark--we have all read his diaries on the subject--talked of the diminution of the threat. That was before "Options for Change" and President Gorbachev was still in office in what was then the Soviet Union.
The last but one RAF debate was in May 1991. The Gulf war was over. The Warsaw treaty organisation no longer existed. By that time, President Gorbachev was no longer in office. In January last year, the debate was effectively and understandably hijacked by the events in the Gulf.
Thus the speed of change is breathtaking. The international context is moving beneath us. How can one then make decisions which are credible in the light of the
Column 504point made by several hon. Members about the long research and development periods and the long period during which the planes are eventually expected to see service? That is the sort of problem that we have with the Hercules replacement, to which I shall refer shortly. I thought that that point was well made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell).
There are problems of choices, as stated by Philip Sabin in the recent book "British Defence Choices for the 21st Century", of readiness as against reconstitution, independence as against integration, flexibility as against specialisation, mobility as against punch and quality as against quantity. The certainties which led to a certain force structure, which led to certain deployments and a certain mix of aircraft, no longer exist.
As for the threat, the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South and others said how real and relevant was the Zhirinovsky threat. Clearly there will be a greater nationalism in Russian defence and foreign policy. The Russian economy has crumbled to such an extent, the likely obsession with internal problems is such and the lead times and alert times are so much greater that at least we can step back a little from the threat as perceived in the 1980s, although, as several colleagues have said, it would be prudent to watch this space carefully. Obviously we are now in the middle of a period of great choice. The Royal Air Force is highly relevant to that, with the need for greater flexibility and mobility. NATO itself is in a period of profound transformation, as was exemplified by the communique from the January summit. Increasingly, our role will be a United Nations role--humanitarian, disaster relief and so on.
On the domestic side, we in the Opposition, together with a number of major voices on the defence side, have called for a strategic defence review rather than ad hoc cuts forced by the Treasury. That is one of the key differences between the Government and the Opposition positions. Why are the Government so adamantly against the R word? Why do they feel that a review must be avoided, in their parlance, at all costs?
On the international side, the recent international changes have particular relevance to the size and nature of the Royal Air Force. The perceived role of defending the island against Soviet bombers is no longer, or hardly, a relevant consideration in current circumstances. Yet we need to maintain our reputation for excellence and be perhaps even more ready to see all our policies in an alliance context. What was most clear in the NATO summit in Brussels was the smokescreen, if one will, of transition from an Atlantic to a European position, with again and again the leitmotiv "the European pillar". We shall have to adjust to that.
As President Clinton said in Brussels :
"We must build a new security for Europe. The old security was based on the defence of one bloc against another bloc. The new security must be found in Europe's integration. An integration of security forces, of market economies, of national democracies". The message for us in Europe is clear. Indeed, it has already been accepted by the French, whose anticipated White Paper--the first for 20 years--states that the defence of France's vital interests can be envisaged with Britain and Germany. Perhaps this sea change was the motive for yesterday's meeting between the Secretary of State and his French and German counterparts, which was initiated by
Column 505the right hon. and learned Gentleman. However, basic questions remain. Will the French, in their procurement policy, be as nationalistic as they have been in the past? What is the relevance, in terms of co-operation, for the RAF and our other services? The Minister replying to this debate will deal specifically with procurement policies. Will our procurement policies be seen increasingly in a European framework? Is the new spirit of co-operation relevant to decisions such as that concerning the United Kingdom's Hercules replacement programme? Clearly the C130Ks, which were bought in 1967, are coming to the end of their life, with an increasing utilisation rate. Ours is one of the oldest Hercules fleets in the world, with outdated technology.
Are we now on target for the decision on replacement or refurbishment? Presumably the tender documents will be issued in the very near future. It is to be hoped that if the contract goes as a number of hon. Members have suggested, the first orders will be placed by the end of the year.
Lockheed has a proven track record. There will be a gap--financially, in terms of the Government's procurement programme, and industrially--before the Eurofighter 2000 comes on stream. The peak years will be around the turn of the century. Hence the relevance in this context. But will our decision to give the first tranche of, say, 30 aircraft to Lockheed pre- empt a decision on the later tranche and force out the proposed European rival--the future large aircraft programme, the FLA? I concede that this is not a flying aircraft ; it is only on the drawing board and will not fly until about 2004. What are the options? Could the Ministry of Defence charter civilian transport planes for routine tasks? Much spare capacity is now available. What are the prospects for leasing? This is a matter that the Secretary of State mentioned to the Select Committee on Defence in December last year. Would leasing be simply a financial device once the basic decision about refurbishment or purchase of new aircraft had been made?
What can the Minister say about the Eurofighter 2000? My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South has already mentioned the problem of the reduction in defence expenditure and the question mark over whether the Ministry will be able to meet the commitment figure of 250. The aircraft is already behind schedule. If other countries reduce their purchases as a result of their own financial pressures, that will only increase the unit costs and boost our procurement costs when the European fighter aircraft, because of its size, is already shouldering out much other potential procurement over the relevant period.
We have heard mention of the EH101 support helicopter and of the importance to Westland of a speedy decision to end the long saga of delay. When is it likely that a decision on attack helicopters will be made? The absence of a United Kingdom attack helicopter capability was very noticeable during the Gulf conflict.
I will not rehearse the well-judged comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) about the current low morale within the RAF. As the hon. Member for Tayside, North said, there is a huge sapping of morale. That is relevant to our questions about the remarks of the Chief of Air Staff. Why did he feel the need to
Column 506intervene as he did? Did he feel that his access to the Secretary of State was insufficient? He obviously made his point, because he had to go on his knees to apologise thereafter. He spoke of a "disreputable campaign" and he pointed the finger at the Treasury. That is why he was specifically asked to apologise to the Treasury. There was great rejoicing among RAF personnel throughout the country and the world that he had spoken up on their behalf. He said what they wanted to say, but felt unable to say.
Other reasons for loss of morale include the proposal that the RAF should lose its sub-strategic nuclear role to Trident. Morale has also suffered because of the extent of the cuts to which the RAF has been subject, which have been spelt out by hon. Members.
The plea from the Air Chief Marshal to the Government was quite clear : stop undermining the services, because there are few enough institutions in the country of which we can be justifiably proud. The quality of life of our service personnel and their families--this is within the competence of the Minister--is also relevant to morale. Mr. Alan Clark told the House in February 1990 : "we are intending to improve the entire stock of married quarters and single-service living accommodation in the next 10 years."-- [ Official Report, 28 February 1990 ; Vol. 168, c. 291.]
Now the plan is to sell not just the family silver, but all the housing as well, in 1995-96, to a private sector housing trust. Thus assets will be sold off and thereafter counted as revenue. It represents a once-and-for- all increase in the resources of the MOD. What progress has been made in planning that major sell-off, which will create the largest housing association in the country? Much of the property is probably unsaleable or in remote areas. Who will carry out the valuations? The figures that I have seen reveal that working assumptions relate to 70,000 properties, to be sold at £7,000 each. That means that roughly £500 million must be raised from City syndicates. Have the Government worked out the full implications of that by discussing it with the Department of the Environment, the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office, as appropriate?
The fact that this massive sell-off of property was not mentioned in 1990, in the afterglow of Thatcherism, suggests that it is a relatively recent decision which has been forced upon the MOD by the Treasury as a revenue- raising operation.
Many implications of the sale may not have been worked out yet. For example, how will it affect local housing programmes? What about tenant participation? Formidable management problems will arise because of the size of the proposed housing trust. What about the sale of properties to service men? Will they have the normal right-to-buy facility? Will priority be given to local housing authorities or housing associations if the stock is not needed by the MOD? The way in which the sale has been introduced into the argument suggests that not only is it a fairly recent decision but one whose implications have not been fully thought through.
The market testing of support services is another source of concern, because of the threat to jobs. I accept that it is a case of horses for courses, because there are examples where the case for that testing can be properly made, if not welcomed. The fear is that ideological zeal, spelt out so well by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) in relation to his own constituency, will push the process of
Column 507market testing further and faster than is warranted, particularly in relation to the RAF's role in servicing its own aircraft. There is already RAF resentment, particularly about the civilian contractors servicing Tornados in Saudi Arabia. The RAF has cancelled a contract with Airwork, saying that it had caused damage
"of a very serious nature"
to the Tornados during modification.
Only one third of the Ministry of Defence personnel questioned about cleaning contracts by the National Audit Office considered that the Government were getting value for money. My advice to the Government, therefore, is that they should be careful and not be pushed headlong, as if they were still enthralled by a type of Thatcherdom, into ways that were spelt out by the hon. Member for Gloucester which would have adverse effects, examples of which have been pointed out.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South said, diversification is another subject about which there is a profound difference of principle between the Government and the Opposition. The Opposition recognise the strategic role of the defence industries. There is a key interface between the defence industries and employment. For example, as recently as Tuesday this week British Aerospace announced 421 job losses at Chorley. The United States President has promised $500 million dollars in the summer to help towards conversion of the US defence industries. The US has a defence conversion commission.
Because of the size of the rundown--about £30 billion to be cut from our defence budget over the decade--there is a potential threat to perhaps 25 per cent. of the United Kingdom engineering industry. The free market has little role in defence purchases, which depend on Government contracts. There is a clear national interest, therefore, in working out the implications for regions, industries, and particular skills arising directly from the effects of the cold war and the substantial reduction in the proportion of the gross domestic product given to defence.
All we had from the Secretary of State was, "We leave these matters to market forces". The Government appear to be accepting no responsibility for assisting in the process of conversion. There have been signs of movement from pure Thatcherism in other policies, such as the recent decision on the financing of the channel tunnel link, but there is no such sign in the Government's unwillingness to intervene in diversification. They do not appear even to recognise the problem. Their do-nothing stance is in contrast to that of a number of our allies and is failing the nation.
The Labour party is fully convinced of the case for defence diversification, and the agency that we propose is promoted by industry, the trade unions and local authorities. It is absurd that the Government should fold their arms when faced with a national problem of such magnitude.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : This has been a valuable and interesting debate and, having listened to all 16 speeches made since 4 o'clock this afternoon, it is good to be able to begin this winding-up speech by saying that the whole House has been genuinely united in the tributes that have been paid to the professionalism, dedication and achievements of the RAF. Even the hon. Member for
Column 508Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who made a carping, whingeing and sneering speech, redeemed himself for a few seconds by paying tribute to the service. I agree with his statement that 1993 was a good year for the RAF.
Not since the 1960s has the RAF been actively engaged in more concurrent operational deployments than today. I am glad to add the Government's tribute to the Royal Air Force and to express our appreciation to its service men and women, from the Chief of the Air Staff downwards, for the excellence of their achievements, often in carrying out missions of considerable risk and danger in places such as Iraq and Bosnia. The whole House and the country are grateful to them for their superb job.
In the time that is available, I hope to respond to as many as possible of the issues raised by hon. Members. Before dealing with individual speeches, it is appropriate to tackle the two or three major procurement issues that have run through the debate. I shall refer in particular to the Eurofighter 2000 and the Hercules replacement and, if I have time, I shall refer to support helicopters.
Eurofighter 2000, formerly known as the European fighter aircraft, is the cornerstone of the RAF's future capability and is one of the Government's major procurement projects. The House is aware that in 1992 and 1993 there were changes to the Eurofighter 2000 programme. In 1992, there was a great deal of uncertainty about its continuation as a four-nation project. There was much speculation about Germany's willingness to continue and there was even speculation about the imminent demise of the project.
Throughout that period, the Government's view remained constant--that there is a clear and continuing need for an aircraft of Eurofighter 2000's capabilities, both for the defence of the United Kingdom and to meet the RAF's commitments in other theatres. That view enjoyed support in all parts of the House and was also supported by industry and trade unions throughout the United Kingdom. I am grateful for that all-round support for a project which is vital to the future of the RAF.
Over the past year, the process of reorienting the Eurofighter programme has moved on and good progress has been made. We have reacted to the significant changes in the international security environment that have taken place since development of the Eurofighter 2000 began in 1988. In the light of the changes in eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union, chiefs of staff of the four partner nations were invited in December 1992 to review the operational requirement.
That work was carried forward in 1993, and some minor relaxations in the operational requirement have been identified and incorporated in the revised European staff requirement which the four chiefs of air staff signed last week. For example, we have slightly relaxed the requirement to operate on damaged runways, although the aircraft will still be capable of operating to NATO standards. We have also agreed to some relaxation in the engine thrust requirements. The revised requirement recognises the continuing need for a fighter aircraft for the RAF with Eurofighter's capabilities.
It was also necessary to reorientate the time scales for the Eurofighter 2000 programme to reflect the budgetary difficulties of the four partner nations. That has led to a revision of the first delivery dates of production aircraft about which the hon. Member for Carlisle asked. It is now
Column 509planned that the United Kingdom and Italy will receive their first aircraft in the year 2000. Spain and Germany will receive their first aircraft in the year 2002.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) asked about the cost of each aircraft. Based on our planned off-take of 250 aircraft, the unit production cost of Eurofighter 2000 is today estimated at some £33 million.
Advances continue to be made on the technical front, but to expect progress on a project as complex as the Eurofighter without any technical difficulties would be unreasonable. Over the past year, there have been well-publicised problems with the flight control system. That is the heart of the aircraft which allows this highly agile and, therefore, potentially unstable aircraft to remain stable in the air.
Eurofighter 2000 has not been alone in experiencing such difficulties. Similar problems have beset the Swedish Gripen and the American F22 programmes. It was with great sadness and horror that we heard of the disasters involving the Gripen and the F22 last year, which we believe were largely due to immature flight control software.
In such circumstances, although the delay to the first flight of the Eurofighter is disappointing, it is understandable. Therefore, it was unfair of the hon. Member for Carlisle to criticise it so much. Industry is rightly being cautious and is double checking the software. Industry's work in the area is now in its final stages and I am pleased to announce that the flight control system is undergoing final testing prior to clearance for the aircraft's first flight.
Mr. Wilkinson : My hon. Friend has just made an important announcement to the House confirming reports that have been appearing in the technical press for some time. What estimate has he made of the effect of the delays on the likely export potential of the aeroplane, as the JS39 Gripen and the Rafale will have been in the marketplace for some time before the Eurofighter 2000 comes into service with the Italian air force and the Royal Air Force? Is it expected that the prototype Eurofighter 2000 will be flying at Farnborough?
We have always believed that the Eurofighter 2000 has considerable export potential, and none of the delays has seriously adversely affected those prospects.
More generally, there is no sign of any major design problem and the delays that have occurred should not be of great significance in the overall programme. The first delivery of production aircraft to the RAF is still forecast for the year 2000.
I move on to the Hercules replacement, in the context of future air transport requirements. In order to overcome increasing problems with the availability and maintainability of the Hercules, we have been giving active consideration to how we can replace or refurbish up to half--that is some 30--of our Hercules C130K fleet.
We let a contract last year to define the refurbishment work including an austere refurbishment. The only new
Column 510aircraft available in competition with the refurbishment in the necessary time scale are the Lockheed C130H and C130J.
I can announce tonight that an invitation to tender has been handed over to Lockheed executives in the United Kingdom this afternoon. It will enable us to compare on a life-cycle basis the costs of refurbishment and those of buying new aircraft. We are also looking at the possibility of leasing transport aircraft. We hope to be in a position to take a decision later this year.
I am well aware of the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. French), in whose constituency I visited the factory of Dowty and saw the excellent propellers. Centrax is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls). There are several British companies--18 to be precise--in the C130J industrial group that hope to benefit from the order, if it is placed.
Replacement of the second tranche of the fleet will be considered later in the light of future requirements for large aircraft. By then, the number of new-buy options should have opened up to include the European future large aircraft which has strong supporters in the House and the country, and others, such as the McDonnell C17. Most other aircraft are somewhat larger than the Hercules, so both operational mix and cost factors will need to be taken into account. The House will know that the Government withdrew from the future large aircraft project in 1989. It has often been suggested since then that we should rejoin, but we feel that adequate technology for transport aircraft already exists without the need for Government funding of further development and that it would be difficult for us to maintain an open competitive stance if we were seen to be supporting one particular option.
It was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) that we should wait for production of the future large aircraft before updating the current Hercules fleet, but the pressing availability and maintainability problems will not allow us to do that. That is why we have taken the decision to go forward in the way we have.
Mr. Mans : I was suggesting that we should wait not until the aircraft was produced, but until the beginning of next year, when the full feasibility study on the aircraft is complete and a clearer decision can be taken on the three options that I mentioned in my speech.
Mr. Aitken : I am glad that my hon. Friend has made clear by that intervention what a paper-only stage the future large aircraft has reached. Sure, we will look at the feasibility study when it appears, but this is pie that is not even near the sky at the moment. Therefore, I cannot be too sanguine for its chances for the first tranche of our transport fleet replacement.
I shall now deal with various points raised by hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) spoke eloquently of the debt that we owe to the Royal Air Force nationally, and locally in his constituency. I am able to give him some of the reassurance that he sought about the closure of RAF Stanmore Park. I can
Column 511assure him that the disposal of the site will be done in a way that will try to preserve various important features such as tree preservation. I have noted his points about the historic site of Bentley Priory and will write to him about those matters in due course.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East made a characteristically thoughtful speech. I have covered some of his points already. He asked about the low-level, laser-guided bomb. The position there is that invitations to tender were issued in May 1993. We now have a short list of two leading contenders : one in the United Kingdom, GEC Marconi Dynamics ; and one in the United States, Texas Instruments. Those tenders are currently being considered. Our aim is to complete the selection process in time to place a contract by April 1994.
The hon. and learned Gentleman asked, in a rather philosophical way, what the future role of the Royal Air Force would be, and made some good points about the size of our presence in Germany. Earlier in his speech, he answered his own question by pointing out that there was no shortage of sophisticated combat aircraft falling into the hands of troublesome and sometimes hostile nation states all over the world. Even though some of the domestic defence role may be diminishing, there is still a key overseas role in the world. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) on his many years of service in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. I even join him in his heartfelt tribute to Mrs. Walker, who has put up with his weekend absences all this time. He was right to draw our attention to the period of great uncertainty that we face, and to emphasise that the RAF requires a period of stability in it. That theme was touched on by several hon. Members. The defence costs study--"Front Line First"--which we are now undergoing unfortunately means that there will be some three more months of uncertainty. After that, I hope that one will be able to answer favourably the good point that he made.
The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) raised a long point about RAF search-and-rescue helicopters. I heard him with more than a passing touch of sympathy as a constituency Member of Parliament, as RAF Manston in my constituency has had many of the same problems. I know how high emotions can run on these issues. These matters have been fully considered and debated. I refer particularly to the very good Adjournment debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) about the Dover strait. Whether it is the Welsh coast or the English channel, the response times are considered adequate by Her Majesty's Coastguard and the DTI. I shall draw the hon. Member's comments to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces.