Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Soames: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind words--and I mean that. I fully appreciate that he had to write his speech before hearing mine, but did not the hon. Gentleman listen to my points about the changes to air operations, adjustment to peacekeeping operations, creation of the permanent joint headquarters, rapid deployment force and the new range of joint and combined operations?

Mr. Spellar: Certainly I did, and rightly drew attention to the re-examination by the Joint Chiefs, particularly with regard to the joint rapid reaction force. However, a broader analysis is needed than the Minister described. We must evaluate where our troops might go, how they would get there, what they would do when they got there, the back-up that they would need, how and at what point they would come home, and the role that aircraft would play in the projection of power. We owe such an evaluation not only to our forces but to equipment manufacturers, who need a clear indication of our future intentions. The Minister may believe that he has produced such an evaluation, but that is not clear to outsiders--particularly in industry.

Dean Acheson said that Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. Over the past 50 years, our role has been defined by the raw realities of the cold war. We no longer face the single unified threat, but the world is still a dangerous and difficult place. We have the opportunity to redefine Britain's place in that world and the role of our armed forces.

It would be of considerable value to the country if, in arriving at that redefinition, we could maintain broad national consensus on defence policy objectives--which we had in the past under Labour and Conservative Governments. Such consensus would not stifle political conflict or debate. We will still argue about the effectiveness and competence of Ministers in implementing the policy. I am sure that next year, Conservative Members will make such criticisms of us, but less effectively.

We need consensus on broad objectives and policy outlines. That sentiment will find an echo in all parts of the House, apart from the hon. Member for Crawley, and throughout the country. That is the challenge facing us. I hope that the Minister is big enough to rise to it, and I hope that the rest of us will--because that is what the country needs and the forces require.

5.23 pm

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside): The part of the speech of the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) that I liked best was his opening remarks about the Spitfire, which were appropriate on a day like today. Some of the Schneider trophy races that took place during the Spitfire's development were held in my constituency, at Calshot Point. Mitchell worked at Southampton university; Spitfire prototypes were flown from Eastleigh, which is close to my constituency;and during the war the Spitfire was made at North

6 Jun 1996 : Column 752

Baddesley, which is in my constituency. It was appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to begin his speech with references to that fine and romantic aircraft, but then he lost the thread, and my support for many of his other remarks.

I want to put on record the name of Tom Paravicini, who served on our district council with me for many years. He was a modest man and a good councillor. We knew that he had something to do with Rolls-Royce, but we were never sure what it was until we buried him the last year. From the funeral oration, we discovered thatMr. Paravicini was a leading engineer at Rolls-Royce and was given responsibility and credit for making the Merlin engine more powerful, enabling the Spitfire and Hurricane to fly 30 knots faster. We pay credit to pilots and ground crews, but we often forget the people who designed the aircraft and gave our pilots the leading edge in combat. I am glad to use this opportunity to digress from the general theme of the debate to pay tribute to that remarkable man.

I share the view of my hon. Friend the Minister and of the hon. Member for Warley, West that it is appropriate to hold this debate on 6 June, which is the anniversary of D-day. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks, and give him credit for being a Minister who is more enthusiastic about his Ministry and the armed forces he serves through the MOD than any other Minister of State that I have known during my time in the House.

The only unfortunate thing about the timing of the debate is that the Defence Select Committee is halfway through one of its regular inquiries into the Royal Air Force. It is a bit too early to quote any conclusions that we may reach, but we have been given plenty of indicators that are worth mentioning without risk of upstaging our report. I will concentrate on two fundamental components of any successful armed force: manning and morale.

I acknowledge that, although the RAF may be the youngest of our armed forces, during and since world war 2 it has been the key to winning battles and wars. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned D-day. Air supremacy--I use that word rather than "superiority"--was vital to that victory. Air supremacy is often difficult to achieve, but it was achieved in the latter part of world war 2 and in the Gulf war--when it undoubtedly led to the low loss of life on the allied side. Air supremacy was not so easy to achieve in the Falklands war, which meant that it was always going to be a close-run thing. Argentina should have achieved air supremacy, but did not--largely due to the vigilance and efforts of the sentinel ships, which ensured our control of upper air space and denied the Argentines the one vital advantage that they could have possessed, being so near the Falklands.

Air power is involved much more in all aspects of the United Nations "Agenda for Peace", in both peacemaking and peacekeeping. The ability to precision-bomb military targets without harming civilians is a useful political weapon: a big stick to back up soft talk. United Nations operations may occur anywhere in the world, but often it is not until they become NATO operations that they are effective. We have seen evidence of that in the former Yugoslavia and then in Bosnia.

It is particularly good news that, at the recent NATO council meeting in Berlin, agreement was reached in principle between the United State of America and its European allies on the proposed joint task force. That

6 Jun 1996 : Column 753

must bring France closer to full NATO membership, because French forces will be included in the task force. France may also be signed up to NATO's military committee, which would be extremely welcome.

Since 1989, we have seen the advent of the so-called "new world order". The other day I spoke to people at Jane's Defence Weekly, who described the new world order as world disorder. They said that we are entering the most dangerous decade of human existence, a sentiment which I believe is shared by analysts and political scientists on every continent. Almost a decade after the Berlin wall fell, the world is still gripped by conflict, tension and mistrust. There are 17 major conflicts under way around the world, and a further 20 areas of special concern in which conflict could break out at any time.

Our armed forces still have very important roles to play, and they are currently being deployed in 33 countries worldwide. They must be mobile to meet today's requirements. That is why I am pleased that so many references have already been made to the need for heavy-lift air transports. I see in the statement on the defence estimates that, on the future of large aircraft, the Secretary of State said:

In his closing remarks, I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bring us up to date on the European future large aircraft, on exactly who our partners are likely to be and on whether there will be sales to third countries.

When the hon. Member for Warley, West referred to procurement matters, he said that we must as a priority buy British. I support that in principle, but buying British need not necessarily mean buying a primarily British product. It may be better to have a share in a bigger project that will enjoy wider world sales than to buy a product that happens to be British but will not sell anywhere else in the world.

Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green): As my hon. Friend and other interested colleagues know, the subject of the maritime reconnaissance aircraft replacement is currently very much on everyone's minds. I wonder how he would fit what he has just said into that framework. There are obviously a number of contenders. We perhaps have access to the Minister's ear, and decisions may soon be made. Does my hon. Friend accept that the most important matter when considering that project is that there should be the maximum amount of British involvement, that the overall lifetime cost should be a primary consideration and, obviously, that the best equipment for the job should be procured?

Mr. Colvin: I am delighted to have given my hon. Friend an opportunity to intervene to make that good constituency point; there will no doubt be headlines in his local paper this weekend.

I am not in the business of trying to prejudge the outcome of these contests because I acknowledge that, despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green said, many of the projects are collaboratory. In the case of the Nimrod proposal, Boeing is very much a partner in

6 Jun 1996 : Column 754

that exercise and may well help to sell the British Aerospace proposal to third countries. One must bear that in mind, which is why I think that the decision to replace our aging Hercules with the C130J aircraft, built by Lockheed, was the right decision.

I am particularly pleased that the 100 per cent. offsets that were provided for in that contract--the so-called "industrial participation"--are being honoured. Now that the C130J has successfully made its maiden flight, it would also be of interest to the House if the Minister would tell us how many third countries are likely to buy that aircraft and what the world sales might ultimately amount to. Bearing in mind the very large British component in that aircraft--which is ostensibly an American aircraft--the prospects for British jobs are very good. Thus, while I accept the proposition of the hon. Member for Warley, West that it is a good idea to buy British, that does not necessarily mean always buying British aircraft.

Next Section

IndexHome Page