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7.1 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): I shall begin with a comment and follow it up briefly with a quotation. In comments attributed to Field-Marshal Earl Haig after the first world war, he said that, looking back on that horrendous conflict, to him two things were of importance--barbed wire and Trenchard. Barbed wire we can all understand--there are memorials to it throughout the length and breadth of Picardy, Flanders and the Gallipoli peninsula--but Trenchard? We are debating his memorial tonight. He was of course the commander of the first independent air force in 1918.

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Earl Haig, being unable to carry the war to Germany itself, had alongside him in the headquarters at Nancy, further down the front, in Trenchard, the architect of independent air power and, night after night in the concluding months and weeks of the war, the independent air force struck into Germany--Mannheim, Stuttgart, the Ruhr and so on.

Trenchard came to be Chief of Air Staff and, when the great demobilisation began after the great war, he found himself trying to keep the air force in being. He wrote a memorandum to the then Secretary of State for Air--and War, actually--Sir Winston Churchill, the grandfather of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I regret that my hon. Friend is not here.Sir Winston presented the memorandum to the House in the form of a White Paper on 11 December 1919. It said:

We have the economics of peace with a vengeance today, and the Royal Air Force has gone through the turmoil of readjustment, not least many families whose breadwinner probably aspired to a lifelong career of service in the Royal Air Force and found himself prematurely not wanted; but now we have an opportunity to nurture the service and to create the political environment to establish a Royal Air Force that will endure as an effective fighting service at least into the first two decades of the next century.

The withdrawal of the RAF from Germany was the culmination of a period of contraction. Many of us had urged that withdrawal long years heretofore, saying that the characteristics of air power did not necessitate a presence of the Royal Air Force, once the Warsaw pact was disbanded, on the soil of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Now, as an island country, we are in a position to create in our Air Force a powerful instrument to preserve peace in a very uncertain world. The Air Force has all the attributes that are requisite for the purpose--speed of intervention, flexibility, economy of force, the potential for a minimum risk of casualties, and minimum collateral damage as a result of the application of precision munitions.

Let us first consider what Trenchard regarded as most important--the men and women of the service. What will they most require, now and tomorrow? Above all, I would say discipline--discipline, and again discipline, and yet again discipline. Nothing is more fundamental for a fighting service. Therefore, the whole training programme, the development of commissioned and non-commissioned personnel throughout their service career, should re-emphasise that cardinal point.

The profession of arms calls for unnatural qualities of sacrifice and dedication, so the inculcation of qualities of character and devotion from the earliest years is crucial. That is why Trenchard founded Royal Air Force college Cranwell and the apprentice school at Halton, among other things, and they stood the service well and proved themselves in war and peace, and enabled the service to endure and to be one of which we are justly proud.

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With discipline must come education and training, both technical and physical; that is why I query what I would call the blazer and flannels ethos in the flying training schools. The Assistant Chief of Air Staff, in the session with the Select Committee on Defence, rightly said that it was his hope that a high proportion of qualified flying instructors would be reservists and therefore able to wear uniform.

I endorse him wholeheartedly. I think they all should be, and the great opportunity of the sponsored reserve category which we have created with our Reserve Forces Bill is that it enables contractorisation to be compatible with the exigencies of military service, with the requirement to serve anywhere at any time at the behest of the Crown in the defence of the realm.

I mentioned the blazer and flannels ethos with regard to the air crew, but it applies equally to the ground crew. My hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned what is happening at RAF Valley. It comprises an advanced flying training school and a tactical weapons unit, which is supposedly a reserve squadron that can be mobilised rapidly in times of emergency or war.

If the Brown and Root and Marshall personnel are sent from Anglesey overseas at short notice into an inhospitable theatre, unless they are auxiliaries and have signed the Air Force Act 1955, I suppose that they could refuse to go. That could cause complications. It is why I urge Her Majesty's Government to make full use of the sponsored reserve's potential in that way.

We must achieve a balance between the Regulars and the reservists. The problem in recent years is that the balance has favoured the Regulars, and the potential of the reservists has never been adequately realised. I hope that this situation will be put right. The signs are good in that regard. For example, the No.1 maritime headquarters unit at RAF Northolt in my constituency does a first-class job supporting the naval headquarters at Northwood and the 11/18 group RAF headquarters at Bentley Priory. The support helicopter squadron at Benson is a precursor of things to come.

I recall another Trenchardism. In response to his suggestion about establishing the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, Churchill replied, "Weekend squadrons, Boom? Never." Of course, those weekend squadrons were formed, and they achieved a third of the victories in the battle of Britain. That battle could not have been won without them, any more than it could have been won without the Poles, whose memorial stands at the threshold of my constituency. Their No. 303 squadron, which operated out of RAF Northolt in my constituency, shot down more enemy aircraft in the battle than any other squadron, even though it was not officially operational when it plunged into the fray.

When considering the force structure in personnel terms, we must address also the equipment issue. I am pleased that the "Front Line First" exercise has enabled the Government to find extra money for equipment. If the Air Force is small in size, it must be equipped to the very highest standard. I am thrilled that the C130J has been introduced into service. The companies which are participating in the programme will benefit from the operational and industrial potential that it presents.

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As to the future transport force, it will need a strategic lifter. If we operate primarily from this island--we will have no overseas commands or groups, and few overseas bases--and if we are to project power, we will need an aircraft that can carry a large volume. That is why I advocate the C17 as a complement to the C130Js in the next century. There must be a mix of those aircraft.

As an island nation, we must concentrate on our maritime role. It is pointless looking to aircraft that are near the end of their useful lives or to hand-me-downs out of the desert: we must buy new aeroplanes that offer the very best in technology, good industrial participation for the United Kingdom and export potential for companies involved in the programme well into the next century, as well as a commonality with other allied air forces and navies that operate the P3.

The argument is fairly straightforward. I recall the VC10 tanker conversion programme. The refurbishment of those aircraft proved extremely costly, and there were hideous problems. With hindsight, it was probably not a very wise decision. Let us not make the same mistake again.

I make no comment about the weaponry--the AST1236 and 1238 or the advanced stand-off radar--except to say that the Royal Air Force must always be ready to buy the best equipment from any source. We must not have political preconceptions. We must not allow our participation in the European Armaments Agency or any other rationale to lead us to buy equipment that does not best meet the RAF's needs. Cost-effectiveness must be the criterion.

For example, the lesson to be learned from the European fighter aircraft 2000 is not that it will not meet the requirements--it probably will--but that an agency and superfluity of management, with a capital "M", is not what is required, as much as a commercial orientation to drive the programme forward, maximise profits for the participants and lead to the aircraft's early entry into service for the RAF.

In conclusion, I shall raise a subject to which my hon. Friend the Minister of State alluded in his speech. The sole No. 11 Group sector station of the battle of Britain--RAF Northolt--is situated in my constituency. It was founded as a Royal Flying Corps station in 1915, so it must be almost the oldest station in the country. The Transport Committee has suggested that it should no longer be a Royal Air Force station, but should become a civil satellite airport--Heathrow north, no less. It is proposed that the Royal Air Force be allowed to make requests from time to time regarding military movements.

The Royal Squadron No. 32 meets the communications flying requirements for the royal family and Her Majesty's Ministers, as well as for the permanent joint headquarters at Northwood, headquarters fleet at Northwood, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1 East Atlantic headquarters at Northwood, Royal Air Force headquarters at Bentley Priory at Stanmore, the No. 11/18 group, the headquarters of RAF Strike Command at High Wycombe, the new NATO Command North-West Europe, which is also at High Wycombe, and diplomatic, and for highly sensitive Government movements of all sorts. To fulfil those roles--which are crucial in times of peace, emergency and war--a discrete dedicated facility is required. That role would not be compatible with reverting RAF Northolt to the status of a civil airport, which it became very briefly following world war 2.

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Residential development around Northolt has increased enormously since those early post-war years, and the Royal Air Force and the civil community enjoy a very satisfactory relationship. The civil executive jet fraternity are allowed to use the airport for a maximum of 28 movements a day with prior permission, five days a week from 08.00 to 20.00 hours. That is perfectly acceptable. If it were turned into a civil airport, it would prejudice one of the Royal Air Force's key roles, and I hope that it will not happen.

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