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Mr. Arbuthnot: No, there are lots of issues.

Mr. Campbell: In the minds of those who are beating a path to the doors of members of the Defence Select Committee, the RMPA, and perhaps CASOM--the conventionally armed stand-off missile--and the anti-armour weapon, are the three issues of the time.

It is generally accepted that the RMPA has long been needed, and clearly the resolution of the three competing bids will take great sensitivity and require very careful and accurate decision-making. One of the difficulties is that all three bids, in different ways, have substantial United Kingdom components. In that sense, they all involve our national interest. As we have already heard, for some Members they involve acute constituency interests, which have conditioned and coloured some of the contributions that we have heard today.

When dealing with such an issue, it is relatively easy to state the principles; it is in the application of those principles that the difficulty arises. The first principle is that the Royal Air Force should get the best aircraft for the job. The second principle is that that should be done at reasonable cost, and that acquisition cost and through-life costs should both be considered. The third principle is that we should support United Kingdom industry.

Again, I doubt whether there would be much dissent from those statements of principle. It is when we come to make the decision, and to decide how much weight to attach to any one of the principles, that the difficulties arise. The same principles apply to the CASOM and the air-launched anti-armour weapon.

I do not know what other Members' experience is, but, as I have hinted already, I do not think that any projects have ever produced such intensive lobbying of those of us in the House who have an interest in defence matters. That is no reflection on the companies involved, because they have a clear and legitimate interest in trying to put their agenda before those Members.

However, if we do not have access to the information that is normally considered commercially confidential, much of that lobbying, however sincere it may be, has little significance. Unless one has access to the detailed acquisition and through-life costs of the project believed to be the most economical, how can one make a judgment? That is an advantage that the Minister enjoys--perhaps it is a burden that he carries--that is simply not available to others.

I share the reluctance of the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, on the matter. How can those of us who do not have access to all the information make informed and intelligent judgments about decisions which, by their nature, are extremely complex? Therefore, like the hon. Gentleman, I have avoided making a commitment in any direction. Of course, I have the good fortune not to have a direct constituency interest, and that has rather assisted me to adopt this purist position.

I do have an interest, in that RAF Leuchars is based within my constituency. Two squadrons of F3 aircraft are based there, and I had the privilege of being flown in the back seat of one of those aircraft nearly 12 months ago.

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It was a remarkable experience that I recommend to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although the white knuckles that you find yourself subject to during the flight are likely to stay with you for some time after.

I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here at the moment, because I wished to offer him my personal and uninhibited congratulations on the fact that he was responsible for an outbreak of common sense in the Ministry of Defence. We have now put aside what many people regarded as the wholly intolerable suggestion that we should not have the mid-life update of the F3, air-to-air missiles and avionics, and that we should embark upon what most of us thought was the improbable course of action of leasing from the United States F16 aircraft, some of which would have to be updated anyway.

In addition, these aircraft were not in any way compatible with the existing tanker capacity of the RAF. We would have appeared peculiar if, while being the landlord and leasing F3s to the Italian air force, we were simultaneously being the tenants by leasing F16s back from the United States. More seriously, that would have raised substantial doubts in the minds of many people about our commitment to the Eurofighter. I congratulate the Government and the Ministry of Defence on the entirely sensible decision, although I have the suspicion that it was more than a little influenced by the attitudes of hon. Members.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement has received so many requests to respond during his reply that it may end up being of almost marathon length--if I can say that within three or four weeks of the opening of the Olympic games. Will he tell me, however--either now or later--the precise state of the Jaguar upgrade? When will the thermal imaging and laser designator be brought into service? Will he confirm that the Hercules replacement is still on schedule? In particular, what is the position with regard to the EH101?

Some reference has been made to the married quarters estate. I do not presume for a moment to try to anticipate the conclusions that the Defence Select Committee will reach on that matter, but the Minister may feel that the questioning on it was not so much friendly fire as intensive cross-examination. I have not been persuaded that the Government's proposed scheme is appropriate.

There is some attraction in the proposition by the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), who is no longer in the Chamber, that the Government consider selling those properties and those parts of the defence estate that are superfluous to requirements, and applying the sums raised to the rehabilitation of the existing housing stock. That would bring about the required improvement and would reduce the burden of management that the MOD bears in relation to the overall defence estate. In addition, it would have the advantage of placating those wives who have been fired up by the proposals, and who may make a formidable enemy for the MOD.

More seriously, there is no doubt that the proposals have caused a great deal of apprehension in all three services, and the Government should be slow to proceed unless they can satisfy themselves that that apprehension has, in all substantial parts, been alleviated. So far, I do not feel that the Government have reached that state of grace.

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I also offer my congratulations on the decision to withdraw the RAF from Bruggen. As recently as the previous RAF debate in May last year, the Minister of State was making a most robust defence of the need to maintain RAF Bruggen because of the political and military significance of the base. Not much has changed in politics or in the military in the past 12 months, but the arguments in favour of retaining the RAF presence at Bruggen have long since been diluted. In particular, the fact that low flying is inhibited in Germany--meaning that the aircraft had to return to the United Kingdom anyway--raised substantial questions in the minds of many people about the utility of maintaining the RAF presence at Bruggen. It will be the end of a remarkable historical connection, but, in my view, it is entirely justified.

Two questions were asked by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside on the matter. First, where will the squadrons go? That is, obviously, a matter of some concern. Secondly, from a tactical and strategic point of view, what facilities will be available to UK aircraft in Germany if the squadrons are required for operational reasons in the future? Germany is our partner in NATO and is taking an increasing responsibility within it. It also has an increasing ability to support UN operations because of the views taken by its constitutional court. There is nothing difficult about that, but it is clearly an important matter when considering the consequences of the withdrawal.

On an occasion such as this, it is right to look ahead. The issue of procurement is one about which we should have some concern, as it relates to the future of the RAF. Remarkable though it may seem--as the first Eurofighter is not due to come into service until 2000--we must now consider what will replace the Eurofighter, and we should certainly consider the replacement for the Tornado GR1, or GR4 as it is to become. The Government have signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States to participate in the JAST programme.

I have been gratified by some of the observations made by the Secretary of State, who has now joined us, about a greater recognition of the need for a coherent European defence industry. In my judgment, the European defence industry will shape and will be shaped by the procurement decisions of European air forces, particularly the RAF. I hope that the conclusion reached by the Trade and Industry and Defence Committee, to whose report reference has been made, and the greater recognition of the European component on the part of the MoD will apply when decisions are taken about which aircraft are to replace Eurofighter and which are to replace the Tornado.

The matter of capability is one for the future. In my judgment, we must try as far as we can to maintain an all-round range of capability so that the RAF is able to operate at high, medium and low levels. Some people appear to believe that if we acquire the conventionally armed stand-off missile, it will be a substitute for low-level operations. In my judgment, that is a wholly flawed analysis.

Those who believe that CASOM will bring to an end the requirement for low flying simply do not understand the purpose of the acquisition of this weapons system.It is not a substitute for our ability to press home low-level attacks, if those are necessary, but an additional capability. Its acquisition should be seen as a supplement, not a substitute. I hope that those who are so enthusiastic

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in their support for CASOM--justifiably, in my judgment, because we require such a weapons system--will understand that it will not mean a reduction in low flying or the capacity to press home attacks at the lowest level. If we are to maintain an all-round range of capability, we must be able to operate at high, medium and low levels.

We who legislate on such matters bear a moral obligation. On occasion, we ask the Royal Air Force to meet the worst case and to operate under the most stringent and acute conditions. We may need to deploy our forces against some of the most advanced weapons systems in the world.

If we compromise on the capability of our air force, two problems may result. We may be unable to contribute to United Nations or NATO operations at the level that we would prefer, and it may also result in casualty rates to Royal Air Force aircrew that are politically unacceptable. That is the argument for ensuring that capability is maintained at the highest level, because we cannot legitimately ask those who put their lives at stake to fly in inadequate aircraft with insufficient weapons systems and inadequate defence systems. We talk here blithely about the contribution that the Royal Air Force makes and is likely to make, but we bear a moral obligation not to ask our young men--and perhaps our young women in the future--to put themselves at risk unless we are certain that we have provided them with the best possible equipment for the job.

Contractorisation is an issue for the future, but it contains a substantial element of risk. If there were a change of Government in 12 months' time, most people probably accept that there would not be a wholesale reversal of contractorisation. The Labour party's defence team has not confirmed that and I doubt whether it will, but if we have started down the road of contractorisation, the likelihood of a reversal is remote. The question that cannot be answered until an emergency arises is whether the private sector will be able to respond rapidly. That question may be unanswerable now, but we are entitled to be determined to ensure that when contractorisation becomes part of the support for the Royal Air Force, it is at the highest level available.

Those companies that are now under contract to provide many of the services previously performed in house--especially engineering--are currently using the skills of fast-jet mechanics, most of whom are former Royal Air Force personnel. That is fine, reasonable and a piece of good fortune for those companies, but those skills will degrade over time. The quality of training provided by the Royal Air Force will no longer be available.

We must ensure that the most stringent standards are written into the contractual arrangements between the Ministry of Defence and those who become contractors. The hon. Member for Warley, West suggested apprenticeships and there may be other ways to impose those standards, but we are entitled to insist that the terms of private contracts are sufficiently rigorous to give us the same standard of performance as we might have expected if the operations were carried out in house.

I have little doubt that the future of the Royal Air Force is most likely to be assured by increased European defence co-operation, although that opinion may be unpopular with some--not all--Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside, the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, referred to

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the return this week of the prodigal France into the bosom of the family and the recognition by the United States that combined joint task forces should be more than a concept and capable of implementation. Those decisions make it clear that there will be continuing pressure to recognise that the effectiveness of defence in Europe is best achieved on a combined and joint basis.

The Minister's opening speech referred to the Franco-British air group as an important example of the open-mindedness of the Ministry of Defence, and the Royal Air Force in particular, in such matters. I understood the Minister to say that the expansion of that group to other members of the WEU was being considered. That is the direction for defence policy, and the Royal Air Force will have an important and significant role to play in the evolution of concepts of defence that recognise far greater co-operation in Europe.

Political and economic considerations will have an equal influence on the degree of co-operation. At best, Europe will have stable defence budgets for the foreseeable future. In reality, defence budgets will probably continue to reduce by a percentage point here or by £500,000 there. I would not wish to lay serious money on the likelihood that defence budgets will increase materially in the next five years. That being so, common procurement, greater integration, interoperability and even force specialisation will become more important in the future.

I have an interest in the Royal Air Force in three separate capacities. I am the spokesman for my party on defence and I am a member of the Defence Select Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside. He is no longer in his place, but he is a most vigorous and skilful Chairman who provides great leadership. As I have mentioned, I also have a constituency interest in RAF Leuchars. That front-line air base now alone provides the quick-reaction alert against intrusion into United Kingdom air space over the North sea. In all three capacities, I have the good fortune and the honour to view the Royal Air Force. As I do that, I am convinced that the men and women of today are a credit to the heritage of the Royal Air Force to which the Minister referred earlier. They continue to display the commitment, dedication and professionalism that has characterised the Royal Air Force for so many years. I am confident that, with the support of the House, they will continue to do so for a long time.

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