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7.34 pm

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wentworth(Mr. Hardy). No one can deny that, in relation to the Royal Air Force, his heart and mind are in the right place, and we always welcome his contribution to the debates.

I remind the House that I have an interest. For many years, I have been a volunteer reserve pilot and instructor and I hold an honorary appointment. I have been thinking about the debate for some weeks, wondering what we would be talking about. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and I must have been thinking about similar things because I had begun to think about the period between the wars and how Lord Trenchard had laid down the foundations that led to the expansion in the late 1930s.

The lessons of the second world war are that control of the skies is a necessary objective. Who could ever forget the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, two capital ships that were lost because they had no air cover? The absence of air cover was critical and the lesson was brought home to us, if we needed it, that even men-of-war that were thought to be invincible were vulnerable to air attack. Who can ever forget the battle of Britain, a close-run thing? I could go on and on about that period, but I have made my point. We must therefore consider today's Royal Air Force against the evidence of history.

If we are to continue to have the broad range of capability, which is the task that Parliament has required the RAF to meet, again history will assist us. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood probably, I have been re-reading some books about the pre-war RAF and about the battle of Britain. Like most people of my generation, I have a library of such books and from time to time I return to them. Having read them, I asked myself: do we today have the ability to expand within, say, three years to defend United Kingdom air space against aggression from the continent?

People will say, "Who are the enemies?" but I remind them that in 1930 no one had heard of Hitler and, by 1940, in 10 short years, he had created the most massive military force known to man and had occupied most of Europe. In fact, in 1932, no one had heard of him. I pick on three years deliberately because the years 1936-39 were critical for the RAF and the year 1939-40 was vital to our survival.

So I ask the question: do we have the capacity to create a strike force capable of taking modern weapons deep into enemy territory? Could we create a modern equivalent of Bomber Harris's Bomber Command? Do we have the capacity today to create a transport and maritime capability, the modern equivalent of Transport and Coastal Command? More important probably, do we have a logistics and training capability to meet the demands of supplying front-line expansion capabilities? My concern is primarily directed towards our ability to expand logistics and training. If we fail in either or both of those sectors, front-line expansion will not take place.

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My reading of the expansion years of the late 1930s is that the ability to produce and to maintain aircraft and spares was vital. Attrition losses in the early years of the war, particularly in France in the first year, required new equipment quickly and squadrons to be created to meet the demands of defending the skies of the United Kingdom.

Will one fast-jet training unit be capable of turning out the number of aircrew required if expansion is necessary in the circumstances that may evolve? The hon. Member for Wentworth and others reminded the House that the unexpected always happens. Will we have the capacity to train sufficient technical staff for the extra squadrons? I can envisage the Royal Air Force having the aircraft but empty seats, because it will be incapable of producing the required number of fast-jet pilots in time.

The present Chief of Air Staff and the Air Force Board are to be congratulated on following the example of Trenchard and learning the lessons of the pre-war years. I am sure that the present Chief of Air Staff would be the first to admit that there must be some risk in the way that financial pressures have forced the RAF to produce training structure logistics that may not expand as the service would wish in times of emergency.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) used the word "sustainability", and the combination of that in current circumstances with the ability to expand will ultimately determine whether or not policies decided and decisions taken now were wise. I heard that with some feeling because we often hear from people--sadly, some of them on the Opposition Benches--the nonsense that a defence review will solve the problem. All experience of such reviews is that they are designed to save money. If we are creating structures that are the direct result of financial pressures--the so-called peace dividend--heaven help us if we go down the route of a defence review designed to save more money, because that will mean cutting planned defence procurement. That is the only way to produce quick savings.

I am pleased with the actions of my hon. Friends the Ministers in respect of defence procurement. I welcome the upgrading of the Tornado F3, which was a wise and sensible decision that had the added advantage of protecting the vital Eurofighter 2000 programme, which we must do nothing to undermine. We are depending on that aircraft, and on it coming in on time. Can my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement give an assurance that decisions on the following programmes will be announced before the summer recess? [Interruption.] I pause while my hon. Friends have their collaborative chat, and I am happy that they should chat. The programmes to which I refer are the replacement maritime patrol aircraft, SR1236--the CASOM, and the SR1238 anti-armour weapon. May we expect decisions before the recess?

The first duty is to buy the maritime patrol aircraft that is right for the job. The second is to get it at the best possible competitive price--I do not argue with that. We must also consider UK involvement. Collaboration is a fact of life and not something that one can discard. In military aviation manufacturing, collaboration is not an option. No single company or country can today provide the high-cost, leading-edge, sophisticated and modern military equipment required to give our air force the edge that it needs. Purchasing decisions cannot ignore that factor. It is important to consider not only price but work

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share, future capability, the retention of a UK research and development and manufacturing capability, and the vital export potential and through-life costs.

It is nonsense for Members of Parliament and the Government to spend taxpayers' money on something that will not offer export potential. That is where collaboration is vital and important. Are we collaborating with countries whose markets will be open to us, or not? I commend my hon. Friends on the selection of the C130J, which was the right decision, as subsequent events have shown, because one should not be persuaded to buy a paper or political aircraft--aircrew do not like the idea of flying, either.

Whatever the pressure on my hon. Friend the Minister--and it will be huge--he should bear it in mind that the companies involved in all the runners for the maritime replacement aircraft should have a large UK content. It is also nonsense to say that, because a company is a leading fuselage manufacturer, it is the only choice--it is not. I hope that the replacement's specification and price will be carefully examined and that the RAF will get the right aircraft, which will have implications for sales world wide. Also, can my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary give some idea when a decision on procuring the SRA1239 is likely to be made?

People tend to think of the Royal Air Force in terms of fast, noisy, low-flying jets. Sadly, that is often the only evidence the public have of an RAF presence. With that in mind, I congratulate my hon. Friends on sanctioning and agreeing the successful Red Arrows tour of the far east, which was one of the most valuable exercises in many decades. It had a huge impact and did enormous good for UK export potential.

Opposition Members mentioned the time that individuals must be away from their home base as a result of the overstretch faced in some areas--a critical factor in maintaining morale and professional standards at home and abroad. We should not be surprised if people have domestic problems if we continue to require them to be away for six months of each year.

Housing is another matter of concern, and answers can and should be found. It is important that we communicate effectively to the people who are affected so that they can clearly receive the message and understand what is happening. I believe that those at the highest levels of the RAF understand what the Government are trying to do, but I am not sure that people at the lower levels understand.

I welcome today's announcement on the RAF Valley contract. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood in suggesting that there should be a pilot scheme for sponsored reserves. I believe that sponsored reserves is the way to go forward. As a volunteer myself, I have always felt that the volunteers' value was not always properly understood by the Government or by the services. Given the opportunity and the training, volunteers are as professional as full-time people. The RAF Valley contract should be a good way to get the sponsored reserves moving.

I cannot forget that, in the immediate post-war years, people such as those from Airwork manned the reserve flying schools, with which I was associated. All the people from Airwork at those flying schools were reservists. Those were the days when the volunteer

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reserve was a very large organisation. I should like to see those manning levels restored through the auxiliaries.I therefore welcome the decision on the helicopter composite squadron at Benson, which is a move in the right direction.

I should now like to turn to a topic that is very close and dear to me. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will not be surprised to hear that I am going to mention something that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces did not mention in opening the debate--the cadets. The Air Training Corps, which currently has 37,000 cadets, not only provides training in citizenship, leadership, team work and many other attributes sought by potential employers; it also remains a valuable source of recruits for the RAF.

Recruiting is not one of the ATC's main objectives, but it is worth noting that the cadets who join the RAF not only have a lower wastage rate in training but remain in the service longer than those without Air Training Corps experience. Moreover, as the RAF significantly decreases its manpower and its geographical spread of bases, the Air Training Corps increasingly represents the only blue RAF uniform that the public ever see.

It is interesting to note that, according to the figures given by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, by 1999 the service will be down to 52,200 people. The ATC, including the adults in uniform who are associated with it, will be nearly the same size. We will have a cadet force that is almost equal in size to its parent service. It is therefore important that my hon. Friend the Minister recognises, and agrees, that the air element of the Air Training Corps is the vital feature that distinguishes it from other organised youth activity, and that it is an important way in which to raise the RAF's profile in the public eye.

My hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised to learn that I want to draw attention to volunteer gliding schools. There are problems with those because sites are becoming increasingly difficult to find. As the RAF shrinks and RAF stations decrease in number, we find it difficult to find sufficient sites for our 28 volunteer gliding schools. The situation is particularly difficult in north-east and south-east England. In some places we have entered into shared agreements with the Army and the Navy, by which they have taken over former RAF bases and shared the airfields with us.

I should like to make it clear to my hon. Friend the Minister that the Army and the Navy must realise that the volunteer reserve gliding units are a part of the RAF training machine, that airfields are for aeroplanes, gliders and other aircraft to fly from and that airfields are not meant for other things. It would be useful if the Army and the Navy--at local level, because there has never been any problem at the highest level--understood that.

I also ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement--I have already written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about this--to understand the need for additional Vigilant motor gliders, which will provide the flexibility that is necessary because of the lack of sites. I do not expect an answer today, but I ask the Minister to have a word with the Secretary of State about my bid for seven more Vigilant motor gliders. They are necessary because of the difficulty with sites.

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We have found that fewer summer camp places are now available because of the reduction of RAF stations. It has therefore become increasingly necessary for us to find other ways in which to get the cadets to camp. I should like my hon. Friends the Ministers to realise that that problem must be examined in some depth. There may be new solutions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) has a direct interest in air experience flying. We will be considering replacing the Bulldog aircraft, which is used for university air squadron flying and for the air cadet air experience flying. I hope that soon we can receive some answers on the replacement for the Bulldog. If my hon. Friend the Minister accepts--I am sure that he does--that the air element is the important element of the air cadets, Bulldogs and the replacement aircraft are important and should have a fairly high priority. As it is not an expensive project--as are the projects I mentioned earlier--I should think that, even with our tight budgets, we will find ways to replace those aircraft.

I always find it interesting to listen to debates on the RAF because, fortunately, there are still some hon. Members who have direct RAF experience. One of the great tragedies of the modern Parliament is that so few hon. Members who are elected to it now have direct experience of the military. We are blessed to have colleagues with direct experience of the military. We are also blessed to have such hon. Members as the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who has a keen and direct interest in the military. The RAF benefits from that.

The message that I should like the House to send out to the people in the RAF is that we care, that they are important and that we want to do the right things for them.

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