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Mr. Keith Simpson: I do not know whether it was a slip of the tongue, but the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the publication of the defence White Paper in July. Does he have inside information as a consequence

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of the joint working committee between Labour and the Liberal Democrats that the rest of the House does not have?

Mr. Campbell: No--I only wish I did. I was proceeding upon the assumption, which I think is generally accepted--

Mr. Alan Clark: It will be published just before the summer recess.

Mr. Campbell: The right hon. Gentleman takes the words right out of my mouth. We will be packing our suitcases and getting out our buckets and spades to go off on holiday, and the White Paper will be published. That will have consequences not just for members of the Select Committee, but for Ministers.

That redoubtable figure--in more ways than one--the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), has made it clear that he intends to take evidence throughout the month of August, so that it will be possible to inform the House properly for the traditional two-day debate when we return in October. The Minister should not make too many grand plans for foreign travel--he may find that his constituency is as far as he gets in August.

There are a number of fundamental questions. Will the RAF escape what looks like a problem of securing long-term funding for its procurement programme? The Eurofighter is a £16 billion programme which is at a sensitive place in the long-term costings. Will the capability gap which looks as if it may open between the United States air force and the RAF have a consequence for the shape of the air power we are able to deploy?

One thing is certainly true. The cost of the next generation of aircraft--such as the joint strike fighter, to which reference has been made--is likely to be substantially greater than the cost of the immediately previous generation. As the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) said, we must ask how many aircraft the RAF will be able to purchase and operate. Is it inevitable, as some argue, that, with the reduction in the level of threat to the United Kingdom, the RAF will shrink even below its current strength?

Will it be possible to maintain sufficient front-line air crew, faced with the attractions of an undoubtedly expanding commercial airline industry, where the rates of pay and regular hours prove extremely attractive to pilots whose rates of pay may be rather better than they once were, but who--from the point of view of home life--find themselves substantially disadvantaged as a result of operational demands?

That leads me to some of the operational demands which have been discussed. SFOR is the strategic force in Bosnia--the stabilising force, in truth--which follows IFOR, the intervention force. Its mandate expires in June of this year, yet it is clear--as the allies have agreed--that some additional, or follow-on, force will be deployed. There may be implications for the RAF, because it is clear that the United States wishes to take a much lower profile in such a force. The Harriers have returned from Gioia Del Colle, as we have heard, but will a reduced US component in the follow-on force have consequences for the RAF?

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We are still policing two air exclusion zones over northern and southern Iraq, seven years after entering into the commitment. How long can that commitment be sustained? What are the consequences for the RAF if it is to be sustained indefinitely? Most immediately, the deployment to the Gulf on Invincible and then Illustrious was succesful, but one must look below some of the headlines. If one talks to people with direct involvement, one finds that there were teething troubles, not least because two quite different cultures were aboard the aircraft carriers.

I understand that there was some reluctance among the RAF engineering support staff, who did not--to put it colloquially--join up to sit in a carrier in the Gulf. They joined up because they thought that they would be stationed on the ground; they did not expect that their lives would change as much as is inevitable on a ship.

There are interesting questions about whether, to avoid a clash of cultures in joint operations on an aircraft carrier, there needs to be joint engineering. To imagine that the differences between two services could ever be entirely eliminated is more than speculative--it is unlikely to be achieved.

The Minister mentioned search and rescue. Indeed, the RAF has made an enormous contribution to civilian rescue--90 per cent. of the missions, I think, are to save civilians. In the communities surrounding RAF Leuchars, we still very much regret, and to some extent resent, the fact that the flight of Wessex helicopters there has long since ceased.

The Minister must recognise that operational requirements such as I have described require fully recruited units. Perhaps he can--at some stage, if not this evening--give more information about those branches of the RAF that were short of personnel in April 1997, such as air traffic control, medicine, the RAF Regiment and telecommunications. An answer to a parliamentary question on 7 April this year made it clear that there were substantial shortages in front-line aircrew for some aircraft. How will those shortages be dealt with?

The hon. Member for Ipswich questioned the need for the Eurofighter. I believe that we need an agile fighter to replace the Tornado F3, which was designed to intercept Russian bombers over the North sea. The Eurofighter is designed to compete against the SU27 and its derivatives, which are available from the Russian manufacturers at prices that cannot be anything more than cost--they may be rather less--so that production lines are kept going.

The likelihood of RAF pilots--men, and women in the future--flying against an aircraft of that quality is high, as it is exported almost without consideration; so I firmly believe that Eurofighter will be an essential part of the RAF's armoury. Formal production contracts are due to be signed in June--when they are, those who have supported the project in the House and elsewhere will heave a collective sigh of relief.

There are two clouds on this otherwise air force blue horizon. First, as part of the unfounded speculation to which the Minister referred, it is rumoured that the number of orders for Eurofighters may be reduced--we shall have to wait and see whether that is in the White Paper. Secondly, it is suggested that, if there is a change of Government in Germany in September, the incoming SPD may want to reduce the numbers--I think that it is committed to 180. If that happens, there could be

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consequences for the work-share arrangements, which, as hon. Members will remember, were the source of considerable difficulties, requiring careful and sometimes brutal negotiation.

The first Eurofighter production aircraft is scheduled to fly in August 2001. The more significant question is when the Eurofighter will be in service--which means, in the RAF's definition, available and supportable in sufficient quantities to provide the desired effect. That is the critical date to which we should turn our attention.

There has been some discussion about whether we should purchase more than 232 Eurofighter aircraft to replace the Harrier GR7--there is even talk about a maritime version. The theory that we should have only Eurofighters and Tornado GR4s has some advantages, as that could produce economies. However, by confining ourselves to those two aircraft, would we have the range of capability sufficient for our purpose?

There is a further concern about the future offensive air system, which raises questions similar to those about the joint strike fighter. We should remember that the United States may buy 3,000 joint strike fighters, whereas the United Kingdom may buy 100. Such a contract would make us very dependent, so our commitment to the JSF has political, as well as military, implications.

Mention has been made of heavy lift. As I said, our experience of the C130J has hardly been attractive. We could opt for the C17, which has the advantage that it is already available, proven and in service. However, it is twice the predicted price of the future large aircraft. To go down that route would necessarily mean that we were abandoning a capability; it would also have industrial repercussions, even if the decision were taken for military reasons.

ASTOR--airborne stand-off radar--is another procurement issue. It is a £750 million project that would provide British forces with much enhanced intelligence gathering. As some will know, there are three possible bidders: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and--a late entrant to the competition--Northrop Grumman.

Members of Parliament are often lobbied about such projects, and I am always slightly apprehensive about that. Without access to all the classified information, commercial in-confidence information and Ministry of Defence specialist advice connected with a bid, all of us who do not sit on the Treasury Front Bench are at a disadvantage. We should deceive ourselves and the House if we said that, on the basis of information in the public domain, we were qualified to make serious technical judgments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) has taken a particular interest in ASTOR and the Lockheed Martin bid--Lockheed is an important employer in his constituency. He is absent today, as he is on parliamentary business, but I undertook to convey his strong belief that the Lockheed bid should be preferred.

The hon. Member for Salisbury referred to the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre. I do not want to reopen the arguments between the Minister and me that took place in a public forum when he gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence. I suspect that he has not changed his mind; indeed, I have not changed mine.

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I simply do not believe that the available evidence--when viewed against the high standard of proof that the relevant RAF regulations require--justifies the conclusion that the pilots were negligent. As the hon. Member for Salisbury said, hon. Members from all parties, of which I am one--my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), who could not be here this evening, authorised me to mention his name in this context--genuinely feel that an injustice has been done.

Suggestions have flown around that those of us who have an interest in this matter and have reached the conclusion I mentioned are somehow challenging the integrity of those who found that there had been negligence. I can speak only for myself, but I say unequivocally that I do not for a moment doubt the integrity of those who were involved in what was undoubtedly an extremely difficult decision. I have a genuine intellectual disagreement with their decision, but I do not in any sense challenge their honesty, any more than they seek to challenge mine, or indeed that of the hon. Member for Salisbury.

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