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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): This may be the appropriate moment to pay tribute to the flying skills and dedication of those based at RAF Lyneham, whose Hercules, of course, were the main aircraft used in the Berlin airlift.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): No, they were not.

Dr. Reid: I shall give way to the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) if he wishes to make an intervention.

Mr. Clark: I extend my apologies for so uncouth an interruption to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), but I rely on the Minister to remind my hon. Friend when the C130 Hercules aircraft became operational.

Dr. Reid: It is a testimony of our times that, on a great occasion, we cannot give tribute in a spirit of non- partisanship without the divisions in the Conservative party expressing themselves.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Reid: A third view from the Conservative party.

Mr. Howarth: I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) was entirely right to mention the Hurricane's sterling work for the RAF, but, in the interests of setting the record straight, I should say that it was--I am pretty sure--the DC3 Dakota that did the job 50 years ago.

Dr. Reid: The nation has a range of Conservative views from which to pick. On a factual basis, I recommend that hon. Members agree with the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), but I am sure that we are all united in spirit in paying tribute to the courage that was shown by the RAF and its personnel during the airlift.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hopes to join Chancellor Kohl, among others, at the opening next month in Berlin of the museum commemorating the Allied role--I, and other Ministers, hope to participate in other events marking the anniversary of the airlift.

During the eight decades since the RAF was established, the advance of technology has continually and often dramatically redefined the nature of battle. Large static armies are a thing of the past. Agility, versatility and reach are now the key characteristics of a modern armed force. The RAF is now increasingly an instrument of policy rather than only of war--its professionalism is as likely to be called on to deliver humanitarian aid to a third-world country as to give a bloody nose to a protagonist in the defence of peace and freedom.

For most people, air power is something of an esoteric concept, both mysterious and powerful. It is seen to affect our lives only when, like an insurance policy, it is called

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on to pay out, or when the peace of a summer's evening is disturbed by a low flying aircraft--a matter that is constantly drawn to the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who, because of the way in which we devolve power in the Ministry of Defence, deals with such important matters.

Nevertheless, air power is the cornerstone on which United Kingdom military capability is based--control of the air is, and will continue to be, the strong and resolute support of our land and sea forces. Given today's emphasis on joint and integrated operations, air power remains essential in the preservation of our national interests and a way of life that we hold dear. It enables us to deter our enemies and to secure peace and freedom for ourselves and for our friends and allies. In the past year, just as in the previous 79 years, the RAF has delivered that air power in an incomparably professional fashion.

The House need look no further than the latest tensions in the Gulf for a vivid recent example. Unfortunately, we have become used to Saddam Hussein's dangerous games of brinkmanship. In November last year, following the Iraqi regime's refusal to allow United Nations inspection teams access to several sites, precautionary military deployments had to be taken to underline our clear resolve not to allow the Iraqi tyrant to flout United Nations Security Council resolutions. Harrier GR7s from No. 1 Squadron were moved at short notice to join HMS Invincible at Gibraltar--RAF crews worked with and alongside the Navy, forming a potent force that left Saddam in no doubt about our intentions.

Although Saddam appeared to back down from the confrontation, in the new year we once again had to reinforce diplomatic ventures and efforts with a clear demonstration of military might. As the House will recall, HMS Invincible, with her joint air group, was moved to the Gulf; Tornados from No. 14 Squadron deployed to Kuwait; and Harriers from No. 3 Squadron embarked on HMS Illustrious, which in due course relieved HMS Invincible on station in the Gulf.

The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy together met the challenges of those deployments with their customary professionalism, most notably in the rapid integration of the RAF Harrier detachments aboard the aircraft carriers. The effective cross-training with United States and other forces in the Gulf was a further sign of our operational effectiveness and preparedness, as was the early adoption into service of the thermal imagery airborne laser designation pod for the RAF Harriers, although, thankfully, we were not required to put that new technology into action on this occasion.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the Minister confirm that the undertaking to deploy extra Tornados was given by our Minister in conjunction with the American Ministers in Washington on the Saturday, and that, by Monday afternoon, those aircraft and all their support capability were in operational flying condition? Does that not demonstrate the superb flexibility of our front-line pilots and all the support staff in the RAF, which enables us to deploy our aircraft faster than any other air force, including, I should say, the Americans?

Dr. Reid: I can confirm the facts that the hon. Gentleman adduces. He puts the point well that that occasion provided a practical illustration of the

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professionalism, preparedness, commitment and skills of crew members and others in the RAF. That is what the Ministry of Defence exists to do: what really matters is the output of fighting power in practice, rather than what we have on paper.

The determination of the United Kingdom and the coalition partners to confront Saddam's intransigence, backing the diplomacy of the United Nations with the means to enforce compliance with Security Council resolutions, has been instrumental in gaining the UN Special Commission the full, unfettered access that is needed to unearth his weapons of mass destruction and the programmes related thereto.

Given Saddam's track record, it is clearly too soon to relax our vigilance. HMS Illustrious and the Harriers of No. 3 Squadron have left the Gulf, but we have increased to 12 the number of RAF Tornados at Ali al Salem air base in Kuwait, where a high state of readiness is maintained. At the same time, we should not forget the RAF detachments based in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which continue the task, started as far back as 1991, of monitoring the no-fly zones over Iraq.

We are committed to the full and final completion of the work of the United Nations Special Commission. Saddam Hussein's horrific programmes must be clearly and unequivocally accounted for and destroyed. We have consistently made clear our determination to see the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.

Britain is at the forefront of continuing international efforts to implement the chemical weapons convention, and we are working closely with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to develop further its inspection capabilities. That included a joint practice challenge inspection at RAF Valley in Anglesey earlier this year.

We are also working closely with our allies and partners to agree effective verification arrangements for the biological weapons convention at the current negotiations in Geneva. That is a priority for our presidency of the European Union, and our aim is to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion by the end of the year.

The House will recall that we also made clear in our manifesto our commitment to the goal of the elimination of nuclear weapons. On 6 April, we ratified the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. We are working hard for the establishment of the international monitoring system called for by the treaty at the earliest possible date. We have made it clear that, once adequate progress has been made towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons, we shall ensure that Britain's nuclear deterrent is included in multilateral negotiations. Only a few weeks ago, on 31 March, we withdrew from service the WE177 free-fall nuclear bomb. That marked the end of an era, as it marked the end of the RAF's part in providing our nuclear deterrent.

Mr. Alan Clark: I quite see that the Minister, conscious that many Labour Members will pay attention to what he says on the topic even if they are not in the Chamber, must include in his speech passages about the WE177 and the Government's good intention to phase out nuclear weapons. However, he cannot take the risk that any international treaty for phasing out nuclear weapons will ever really work. He could not disarm this country

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on the assumption and hope that bandit countries such as North Vietnam, rogue republics of the former Soviet Union and Muslim fundamentalists would disarm themselves, knowing what we do about the way Saddam Hussein and others practise concealment.

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