Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West): I merely said,"In some very dodgy foreign ships."

Mr. Soames: What an inspired intervention. It has added a great deal of light to our deliberations. Perhaps I may continue.

There were 45,000 American troops involved, and a total of 56 Royal Air Force aircraft took part, including Harrier GR7s and Tornado GR1s, VC10 tankers, Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and Hercules C130s, which were engaged in the largest parachute drop since the second world war, involving more than 5,000 United States and British paratroopers.

Eight Royal Air Force Pumas and seven Chinooks participated in a variety of support helicopter operations, including comprehensive cross-training with the United States 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force and 18th Airborne Corps. Two Royal Air Force Sea King search and rescue aircraft from 202 Squadron participated for the first time in a major exercise in the combat search and rescue role. The airlift to the United States involved some 2,550 hours of flying by aircraft of the air transport fleet. The exercise, which was on a gigantic scale, was a tremendous success. It provided fantastic training opportunities for all air and ground crews.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) indicated assent.

Mr. Soames: The hon. Lady will have heard about it from her constituents. The exercise provided training for maritime strike and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and for Tornado and Harrier aircraft in support of their offensive counter-air, battlefield air interdiction and

6 Jun 1996 : Column 733

close-air support roles. Many lessons have been learned about large-scale combined joint operations and these will be incorporated in future tasks.

Many exercises, of course, are on a rather smaller scale. As we debate today, RAF Jaguars and Harriers, supported by VC10 and Tristar aircraft, are in Alaska to participate in the Cope Thunder exercise series with US and Canadian forces. They will practise operational low flying, weapons firing and electronic warfare procedures.

The RAF has participated in nine major NATO exercises within Europe in the past 12 months, including deployments to Germany, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and Norway. UK participation in such exercises demonstrates our tangible support for the alliance. It affords valuable practice in combined training, while operating alongside forces of other nations in an often unfamiliar environment. It allows the RAF to practise and assess the deployment, sustainment and recovery of our reaction forces declared to NATO.

Collaboration with our allies has also continued within the Western European Union. In particular, the Franco-British European Air Group, announced at the Chartres summit in the autumn of 1994, became operational during the past year. The air group, based at RAF High Wycombe, was formally inaugurated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Chirac on 30 October 1995.

The group, which aims to improve the capabilities of our respective air forces to carry out combined operations in pursuit of shared interests, has only a small permanent planning staff and has made excellent progress. It is showing tangible results in increased combined training and personnel exchanges, and work is progressing on contingency planning for joint humanitarian operations. We indicated that, after a settling-in period of at least a year, the group might expand to include other WEU nations. We will soon be considering further the possibilities of such an expansion.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): The Minister refers to our co-operation with France. Will he devote some time to the implications of President Chirac's announcement about the future large aircraft, which could be serious for the RAF? Will the Air Force have to look elsewhere for an even larger heavy lift capacity?

Mr. Soames: The hon. Gentleman knows that these difficult and complex matters are dealt with by my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement--the brains sitting to my left. My hon. Friend will refer to that matter later. [Hon. Members: "Does he mean the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin)?"] The answer is that both my hon. Friends know more about it than I do.

In November, three Hercules aircraft participated in Exercise Bright Star in Egypt, operating alongside contingents from France, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft have been deployed to the Gulf for joint exercises; to Malaysia to participate in the five power defence arrangement exercise Starfish; to South Africa and, most recently, to New Zealand, where two Nimrods have been training alongside anti-submarine warfare forces from New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Finally, a Nimrod

6 Jun 1996 : Column 734

and crew from 120 Squadron have just completed co-operative training with the joint international task force east in the Caribbean.

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove): My hon. Friend referred to Nimrods, which are due to be phased out in the near future. Will he confirm that there will be an early announcement--hopefully, before the House rises--on whether the Government intend to order replacements for Nimrod or to update it? Will he confirm that the MOD will look at the life expectancy and value of any replacement, and that he will consider the total British components of any replacement?

Mr. Soames: I can confirm none of those things, because, as I have said, I only use the equipment when it has been bought. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has those difficult decisions ahead of him, and I have no doubt that he will wish to turn to that important and expensive procurement in his extensive and already brilliant speech.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Will the Minister ask the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to look carefully at the Valkyrie when he visits my constituency, especially Marshall's, tomorrow? The Valkyrie has been developed with a view to replacing the Nimrod as the maritime patrol aircraft, and it has the lowest cost, the best export potential and a high content of United Kingdom production.

Mr. Soames: The hon. Lady is a formidable ambassador for the Valkyrie. I have studied her during the debate. She has looked like a wise owl on her Bench, and I knew that she was pregnant with question. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will have heard what she said and will pay attention to the excellent opportunities that Marshall's have at present and will have in the future.

Mrs. Ewing rose--

Mr. Soames: Oh my God!

Mrs. Ewing: The Minister seems to be concerned by interventions from women. The replacement of Nimrod is critical, because many small and large businesses may be involved in the result of the decision. Can the Minister give us any information about when the decision will be taken and announced?

Mr. Soames: I am doing my best to explain to the House that I am here to speak this afternoon about the operational matters of the Royal Air Force. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will, I am sure, address such questions. I do not wish to make light of the matter, not only because those aircraft are important to the overall operations of the RAF and the defence interests of the United Kingdom, but because the programme carries many commercial implications, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) said. I know that the decision will be taken with great care.

The RAF contributes both to NATO's partnership for peace initiative and to the United Kingdom's outreach programme. Last October, Tornado F3s took part in the first ever partnership for peace flying exercise,

6 Jun 1996 : Column 735

Co-operative Jaguar, which was held in Denmark. Those exercises, together with the essential preparatory work on flight safety, language proficiency and effective airspace management, are excellent opportunities to reap the benefits of co-operative training, as well as to build confidence and familiarity with potential allies.

The past year has seen a great expansion in bilateral contacts with the countries of central and eastern Europe under the outreach programme, many of which form the basis for successful participation in partnership for peace. It is a testament to the extraordinarily high standards and professionalism of the RAF that we receive daily requests for advice from countries in central and eastern Europe, covering topics from flight safety and airspace management to aviation medicine. The Chief of the Air Staff plans to visit his counterparts in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary later this year, and I greatly enjoyed the discussions that I had with the Hungarian Chief of the Air Staff a few weeks ago.

The RAF has also been active in providing assistance to the civil community both at home and abroad. Last year, RAF Hercules aircraft carried humanitarian aid to the dependent territory of Montserrat and neighbouring Antigua to help set up evacuation centres and to airlift those local people who chose to leave the island. With the volcanic activity continuing in Montserrat and elsewhere, the RAF stands by to provide whatever further assistance may be required.

Closer to home, personnel from RAF fire rescue teams, who usually provide crash cover at RAF airfields, were deployed to Merseyside, where they helped to provide emergency fire service cover during the industrial dispute. The RAF is ready to provide similar assistance elsewhere if required. Earlier this year, when bad weather isolated many parts of the country, helicopters took emergency supplies to villages that had been cut off, and ferried people with emergency medical conditions to hospital.

The yellow helicopters of the search and rescue teams continue to be a welcome sight to many an imperilled or incompetent yachtsman or stranded mountaineer. Although established to rescue downed military airmen, the RAF's search and rescue fleet, stationed at eight different locations around the country as well as in Cyprus and the Falkland islands, also provides assistance to the civil community. With the mountain rescue teams, the search and rescue teams were responsible for saving more than 1500 lives during 1995.

By July, the last remaining Wessex helicopters on front-line squadrons will be replaced with the much more capable Sea King, which will increase still further the RAF's ability to help the civil community.

A rather less eye-catching, although nonetheless essential, service to the civil community is air traffic control. My Department co-operates closely with the civil authorities in providing air navigation services to all aircraft in United Kingdom airspace. Last year, some 230,000 military and 82,000 civil flights were provided with air navigation services by military air traffic controllers. In addition, 1,400,000 flights were provided with ATC services at military airfields. The close co-operation between military and civil air traffic controllers is truly essential to the maintenance of this country's safe, efficient and effective air traffic control arrangements .

6 Jun 1996 : Column 736

In Northern Ireland, the RAF continues to fulfil an important role in the support provided by our armed forces to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. At present, approximately 1,100 RAF personnel are deployed in the Province, operating Chinook, Wessex and Puma helicopters, and an RAF field squadron, which provides security at RAF Aldergrove, the Province's main military airhead.

As in the rest of the United Kingdom, the RAF also provides invaluable assistance to the wider Northern Irish community in times of emergency. RAF aircraft have often been called out to help rescue people, either at sea or on Northern Ireland's inland lakes, or to airlift the injured to hospital. The RAF will, like the other two services, continue to assist the police in countering terrorism until all terrorist organisations make a commitment to end violence permanently.

Before I leave the subject of operational activities, the House would, I know, wish me to say something about the recent spate of aircraft accidents, which has seen the unfortunate loss so far this year of nine RAF aircraft. Flight safety is a fundamental part of operational effectiveness. While there has been understandable concern about the recent spate of accidents, there has also been much unfounded, and some wholly irresponsible, speculation about their potential causes.

There have been suggestions that those accidents are connected with the reduction in the size of the RAF following the end of the cold war. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reductions in the number of aircraft and personnel have been carefully planned, and they are consistent with the RAF's commitments. They do not--nor would they ever be allowed to--compromise either RAF training or safety.

Next Section

IndexHome Page