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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will my hon. Friend consider another aspect of Eurofighter? It is not only the present predicted procurement by the four partner nations that is important. Because it has nearly the same capability as the F-22, but at a considerably lower price, Eurofighter has a large potential export market. Therefore, it is important that the four basic partners get on and commit themselves to the numbers at the present time.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is right. Essentially, only three or four aircraft will be in this category. They include the F-22, which, as he says, will be hugely expensive, and the Eurofighter, which will be almost as technologically advanced--it does not have stealth capability--but at a much lower price. As I worked for the Sukhoi Design Bureau for a year, I can tell hon. Members that the SU-27 is out there as well, and is also very effective. To say that Eurofighter has enormous export potential is perhaps exaggerating, but I think that it has export potential.

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It will help if the Government commit to the beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile. I am sorry to go on again about it, and I shall not say any more than that, but I ask the Minister to take himself back to the debate about whether we should go down the American route of the high-speed anti-radiation missile, or develop our own.

I was one of those in favour of developing our own system ALARM, the air-launched anti-radiation missile, because the Americans would not allow us access to the head technology of the high-speed anti-radiation missile, HARM. If the Americans want to do business with us, it is essential that they let us have access to the technology, or there is no deal on the table. The opportunity of giving British and European industry the chance through the Meteor programme of producing a world-class missile should not be lost. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

The recent exercise in the Gulf has shown the importance of carriers as platforms. I agree with John Keegan that it would be welcome if the Government produced some serious aircraft carriers. As he said:

I have always believed in supersonic VSTOL--vertical short take-off and landing aircraft. More development funds should be put towards that.

Other colleagues have mentioned the future large Antonov. I get fed up being told how anti-European we are in the UK. British Aerospace has been working flat out on the future large aircraft, and what are the Germans doing? They are running off talking to the Ukrainians about the Antonov-AN70. We are the good Europeans, not only on this, but on many other issues--and I say that as a proclaimed Euro-sceptic.

Mr. Keith Simpson: No.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend did not seem to be aware of that. I will have a word with him in the Tea Room later. I have obviously not made my policy clear.

We must have some decisions. The Hercules will not be around indefinitely. I entirely support the C130J, and, although there are problems, I believe that they will be resolved. The Government must start making some decisions on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned the problems with Slingsby. The Minister should be concerned that there seems to have been some moving of the goalposts. I have flown the Firefly, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood. It is a very good aircraft. Having made the improvements to it, Slingsby has removed any obstacle to enabling Ministers to select that aircraft. I hope that the MOD will not be guilty of the crime of moving the goalposts and disqualifying Slingsby for putting in a bid that was compatible with the original request for a proposal.

I have written to the Secretary of State--he has kindly replied to me today--about the future of Dowty. I am concerned at the prospect that Britain might be about to lose ownership of one of its successful supply companies. At present, Dowty is half owned by Snecma of France and half by the TI group in the United Kingdom.

I have not had the assurance that I sought from the Secretary of State. If the state-owned French company is to acquire Dowty Aerospace, which has 40 per cent.

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of the world market in landing gear for civil and military aircraft, the Government must tell us what security of supply there will be for landing gear for Eurofighter and other aircraft if the French chose at some point to close factories in the United Kingdom and transfer manufacturing to France.

As we have heard tonight, the Royal Air Force is a great service that has done us all proud. It has done us proud in a way that relates to my constituency.

For many years, man has sought to break the sound barrier on land. It has been done in the air many times, but it has only just been achieved on land. It was achieved by Andy Green, a Tornado pilot. It was a fantastic achievement. I do not think that people fully understand the risks involved. The driver had a huge influence in that record being broken. He went through the sound barrier with the steering column at 90 deg, such was the drift of the Thrust SSC vehicle. It was his qualities as a Tornado pilot that enabled him to do that.

I conclude by paying tribute to the Royal Air Force for the support it gave to Andy Green and to Sarah Millington, who was at base control. It gave them some time off--not very much, I hasten to assure the Minister--and that sums up the Royal Air Force, the quality of its personnel and what it can achieve.

8.33 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): It is extraordinary that, in the 80th anniversary year of the Royal Air Force, people are still talking about whether it will continue as an institution. The Minister felt the need to make that explicit in his opening speech. Any serious examination of the RAF's contribution makes it clear that there is no question of anyone being unwise enough to do without it, in the same way as no one could conceive, politically, of getting rid of 80 per cent. of the Territorial Army's combat elements. It is on that scale of political foolishness.

As other hon. Members have said, when such questions are raised, it resonates with serving and retired members of the RAF that, occasionally, the questions are taken seriously enough to be repeated in the newspapers. There has been a culture of insecurity about the Royal Air Force that has produced one or two unwelcome effects as it has sought to compete against the other two more senior and established services. Indeed, in his opening remarks, the Minister described the RAF as the junior service. I know that he did not mean it like that, but such comments are unwelcome, and reinforce the feeling of insecurity.

It has meant that, within the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Air Force has taken extremely successful political action to secure its position. It groomed future chiefs of the air staff from an early age to fight the political battle for the RAF inside Whitehall. In my experience in the Ministry of Defence, that has meant that the central control over ideas and the development of tactical doctrine was strong in the RAF and very centralised. People coming up with different and challenging ideas were not welcome. That is a pity, and it is unnecessary.

The strategic defence review is supposed to be a wonderful open process, and I hope that, following in the steps of "Front Line First", which invited ideas from the armed forces for improving the support area of the

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services and which, in a sense, let a thousand flowers bloom, ideas will be welcome from service men, particularly those in the Royal Air Force. I hope that it will not feel the need to entrench its position and be defensive.

I can give an example. The ownership of support helicopters has, for a long time, been seen as something to be defended by the RAF, not in desperation but in determination not to give up any part of that empire; yet, for decades there has been an extremely strong case for examining how we organise our support helicopters which fly, most of the time, in support of the Army. Has there really been a case for constantly maintaining strict ownership of support helicopters within the Royal Air Force?

Such has been the mentality within the Ministry of Defence that I am told that, some years ago, there was almost a formal agreement between the Chief of the Air Staff and the Chief of the General Staff that, if the Chief of the General Staff stopped trying to get hold of the support helicopters, the Chief of the Air Staff would stop trying to get hold of the new attack helicopters. We are beginning to get away from that mentality. I hope that, in this 80th anniversary year, the RAF will feel that there is no threat that needs to be addressed in that way.

Another consequence of its political success in the Ministry of Defence is that it has achieved, almost stunningly accurately, 33 per cent. of defence expenditure, along with 33 per cent. for the Royal Navy and 33 per cent. for the Army. When I arrived as a special adviser at the Ministry of Defence and looked carefully at the statistics, I was amazed at how consistent that picture had been for a long time. The services had cleverly seemed to carve up the cake almost equally between them, as if, regardless of the strategic or technological circumstances, a deal had to be done between the chiefs of staff.

The Royal Air Force should be confident with names such as Trenchard, Harris and Dowding, and it should know, from the history of the 20th century, that there will always be a place for it, not least for the regimental ethos that supports such a terrific service to our country. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) in paying tribute to Sir Michael Graydon, who led the Royal Air Force through extremely difficult times. The manning figure today is 53,000, and four years ago, if my memory serves me correctly, it was 75,000. Yet it is still deploying the same front-line operational output as it did four years ago. That is a terrific tribute to the way in which Sir Michael Graydon has reorganised the Royal Air Force and implemented the "Front Line First" reforms, which, of all the services, were most painful for the Royal Air Force.

The Royal Air Force clearly has a place because of the importance today of air supremacy. If we examine the potential threats to the United Kingdom, we realise that it is obvious that we need air superiority to defend our island. The Air Force is the last defence before we have to rely on our nuclear deterrent. Conservative Members certainly want to retain that as a backstop, but the contribution made by the Air Force to the defence of our island should never be underestimated.

Let us consider the operations in which we are taking part and those in which we have taken part in the previous two decades. During the Falklands conflict, we only just managed to sustain air superiority over the supremely

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brave Argentine pilots, who flew their aircraft to the very limit of their range. We were able to bear the casualties from the Sir Galahad because the operation was vital to our national interest and we had to resecure the defence of the Falkland islands, but what about the operation in Bosnia?

The Bosnian Serbs possessed one or two aircraft which they left sitting on the ground because they knew that, the moment they took off, they would be shot down. Let us imagine what would happen if that were not the case, if we did not have total air supremacy, and if we were made to suffer casualties like those involved with the Sir Galahad by an organisation that could get away with using one or two aircraft to score a spectacular hit, it becomes clear how important it is that we sustain the defence capability of the Air Force at the highest possible level that we can afford. That today means the Eurofighter. Several hon. Members have already commented on the need for Eurofighter, and I wholly agree.

Even further into the future, we are now looking at the joint strike fighter which is being developed with the United States. It is a terribly important partnership. It is also a good example of smart procurement, and the way the procurement is being handled--the way in which two industrial conglomerates' teams are together putting their rival schemes to the Pentagon--is a model that I am sure the Ministry of Defence will be examining.

Mention has been made of our increased need for strategic lift as we move towards an expeditionary force capability. There is clearly a case to made for the C17. I do not think we can afford the C5 which is the giant at the end of the strategic lift market, but the C17 seems extremely well suited to the needs of our armed forces. Four C17s could deploy an armoured reconnaissance squadron into theatre and have them deployed, including their echelon, into a battle position. That would be a very speedy way to get light armour on the ground to demonstrate a presence. The C17 can also move tanks and is an ideal complement to the C130J.

There have, of course, been problems with the introduction of the C130J but I and other members of the Select Committee on Defence have been given an assurance by senior executives at Lockheed that the final part of the C130J order will be delivered on time. The earlier part of the delivery schedule was delayed because Lockheed, by its own admission, took its eye off the ball and did not appreciate how difficult some aspects of the development of that aircraft would be. I should be glad to hear if the Minister knows otherwise, but I understand that Lockheed will deliver the last of the in-service fleet on time according to the original specification.

British Aerospace is constantly frigging around with the future large aircraft. I should like to point out to British Aerospace that there are times when things simply do not fit into the RAF's operational requirements schedule, and the FLA is one of them. We are shortly going to have to replace the C130Ks. The FLA has been a distraction, and, frankly, the previous Administration was guilty of giving the political nod to British Aerospace which ran extremely high-profile campaigns to keep the FLA in the game. As far as I remember, we did not commit more than thruppence ha'penny to the development programme, but it was a mistake anyway.

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The C130J and the C17 give us two complementary capabilities, and it would be extraordinary if we brought a third major transport aircraft into the fleet. It would be a significant mistake. We should now make it clear that we are going with the C130J and should hold Lockheed to deliver the current tranche as agreed. I understand that we have a very good offer, in competitive terms, for follow-on buys, as we were the first military purchaser of the C130J .

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