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4.47 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) spoke up for his constituency and constituency interests--quite right, too, and well spoken, if I may say so. We all speak for our constituency interests. I have on occasions spoken up for my constituency company, Basys Technology, which operates in defence procurement and for another local firm, Vosper Thornycroft. However, on this occasion, I want to look at defence procurement on a top-down rather than bottom-up basis.

Defence procurement is an important issue--an issue of life or death for the soldier, sailor or airman, or even for a nation. It is one of the oldest issues that nations have had to face. It goes back to the creation of gunpowder and right through to the creation of nuclear weapons. It goes right back to the time of the Trojan horse and through to the Enigma code breaker. It is a crucial issue. It is vital

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that we should give our forces a military edge. After 50 years of tranquillity in Great Britain, it is important that we should not relax. I point out that that is 50 years of tranquillity in Great Britain, not the United Kingdom, because Northern Ireland has been disrupted by violence in that period.

I believe that the Ministry of Defence is working on the basis that there will be no war without three years' warning. That did not apply in the case of Kosovo. We were within a few days of mobilising reserves and going into what might have been an extremely bloody ground campaign. It is crucial that we should lift our eyes above parochial and constituency issues and ensure that we give our troops what it is our duty to give them--the best possible equipment.

There are enormous complications in defence procurement. First, there is the size of the budgets. We are dealing with numbers that have so many noughts on the end that it is difficult for many people to contemplate the size of the budgets.

Then there is the complexity of the issues. To put it most simply, a naval gun costs only a fraction of the through-life cost of the programme. The shells used by that gun will cost much more than the gun itself. We have to concentrate on through-life costs rather than on initial procurement costs.

Another complicating factor is multinationality, and that applies whether we are co-operating with the United States or with our European allies. It is an extra political complication. I welcome the six-nation framework that was signed in July 1998, a letter of intent that was intended to bring six nations together to co-operate more closely and to harmonise their defence procurement.

The final point of complication is the transience of Ministers, decision makers and armed forces personnel. Armed forces personnel are experts in their own field, but they serve in a particular posting in Whitehall to deal with a defence procurement matter for probably two and a half years or so. None of the five Defence Ministers has any defence experience and only one of them has been in post since May 1997. All the rest are transients and have had to try to pick up the threads of enormously complicated issues in a comparatively short time. My message is that we should try to keep defence procurement simple, clear and honest.

Delay is an enemy and the best is the enemy of the good. The people involved in defence procurement try to put extra knobs, whistles and bells on different equipment. They find it difficult to do what the manufacturers of television sets, radios or other mass-produced items have to do, which is to freeze a design and produce a large number. There is a tendency among Ministry of Defence planners to keep evolving the design, which means that it becomes more complicated and expensive. That results in delay after delay.

Why do we need to be concerned about defence procurement? In the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and at other international gatherings where people discuss defence, a series of numbers has become accepted--100, 60 and 15. If the United States puts in 100 per cent. of the effort, all the European NATO countries combined put in 60 per cent. of the effort. However, the European countries receive only 15 per cent. of the benefit from

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that effort. In other words, all that the European continental NATO allies receive is 15 per cent. of the effect of the United States defence procurement budget--15 per cent. of the bangs for your bucks that the Americans get. That is a deeply serious issue, not only because of the imbalance that is created, but because of the nature of American society. It is disturbing that only about 8 per cent. of United States citizens have passports and have ever travelled abroad. I understand that George W. Bush has travelled abroad only three times, despite the fact that his father was ambassador to China and to the United Nations and later the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. However, that is better than Ronald Reagan who had travelled abroad only once before he was elected President, and that was to Taiwan. The United States is a very insular country. Mentions of foreign policy issues are very rare in the Gore-Bush election debates. It is only after an individual is elected President that he starts to take an interest in foreign affairs.

We in this country are used to the standard schoolroom projection of the world--the Mercator projection with the United Kingdom in the middle and the other countries spread out on both sides. In the United States, north and south America are in the middle of the map, and we must remember that a third of the population of the United States--those in California and on the west coast--look to the west. They do not necessarily look to Europe primarily; they look west to Japan, China, Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines. The United States has been an amazingly staunch ally and I pay it tribute for that. No one could be a finer ally of Europe. However, it would be a mistake to continue to take that fact for granted. We must put more effort into defence procurement and ensure that European defences are stronger, and we must do that without in any way weakening NATO.

A further contributory strand in such thinking about the United States is that it would be a mistake to imagine that the most powerful country in the world will sit by supinely and watch the actions of rogue states--or, to be more accurate, rogue Governments--in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea without seeking to deploy national missile defence. The planned earliest date for that deployment is 2005, and we will delude ourselves if we think that the Americans will not plan to deploy it. That will inevitably dislocate and disturb the equanimity of NATO. Stresses and strains will occur, and that is another reason to set up a European rapid intervention force and have a European security and defence identity. However, we must create them without disturbing the strong links within NATO.

NATO is expanding. We must ensure that those countries that join NATO have the opportunity to equip themselves consistently with our equipment. We should not forget that, as NATO expands, the sphere of influence of the former Soviet Union will necessarily diminish. Russia and its allies had a huge military-industrial combine and the production of military equipment was an important part of the Russian economy. If Russia sees NATO expanding, it will effectively take markets away from the Russian military-industrial combine. We should be broadminded enough not to rule out the possibility that, one day, we will procure defence equipment from former Soviet Union countries in exactly the same way as we are contemplating the purchase of defence equipment from

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Israel and South Africa. We should bear such issues in mind when we consider our defence procurement budgets.

On the scrutiny of defence procurement, there is an informed body of opinion among academics. The outstanding Royal United Services Institute is based just down the road from the House, but I want to pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member. I admit that, when I began to serve on the Committee, I was a former Minister and thought that it and the other Select Committees were a boil on the backside of the world. I did not understand their relevance. It has taken me a long time to realise how valuable a Select Committee can be.

Select Committees can call witnesses before them and ask for expert papers. They have superb advisers and they can ask informed questions. They can also ask dumb questions, which are sometimes more helpful than the well-informed ones. The reports of the Select Committee on Defence are the most authoritative source of information on a range of defence issues. I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George)--I almost called him my hon. Friend--and the Committee's other members for the valuable work that they do.

As with other procurement issues on which we have joined the United States or purchased equipment directly from the United States, it is remarkable how trouble free the nuclear deterrent issue has been. We need air superiority in high-intensity fighting capacity and I am a known unenthusiast for the Typhoon Eurofighter, which has a range of only 1,400 km compared with the range of more than 4,000 km of the Boeing 15E and the Sukhoi 35. The aerial dexterity of the Sukhoi and Mig aircraft is notable at air shows and makes the Typhoon look pretty pedestrian and lumbering. However, its electronics are extremely good, so it is a good aircraft.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Viggers: I am sorry, but I cannot. My speech is subject to a strict time limit, so I hope that my right hon. Friend will allow me to continue. I am watching the clock with care.

I am convinced that the decision to scrap the Mauser cannon in the Eurofighter is wrong. I speak as a former Royal Air Force pilot and as the commander of a guided missile squadron in the Territorial Army. I have spoken to many people in the Air Force about the Government's decision to scrap the Mauser cannon after the first 55 batch of Typhoons. It is interesting that every single pilot below the rank of group captain to whom I have spoken--I have spoken to many--said that it was madness to scrap the gun. Every single officer above the rank of group captain to whom I have spoken sucked their lips, thought for a moment, remembered their staff and defence college courses and loyalty to the body public, and said, "There are very powerful arguments for doing so."

We are told that the reasons why the gun was scrapped were nothing to do with money and that it was just not needed. In that case, why do the Rafale and Gripen fighters and all other Eurofighters procured by our allies--even, for goodness' sake, the F22 American

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stealth fighter--have cannons? Why have we decided that we do not need them? I have asked those who were involved in events in Sierra Leone whether it would have been helpful to have been able to fly a noisy aeroplane over the country and perhaps fire away a few rounds from a cannon. They said that that would have been absolutely invaluable. I am convinced that the decision is a mistake.

Moving to ship orders, I say in passing that when I saw the Secretary of State for Defence preening himself at the Dispatch Box, describing his wonderful plans for maritime purchase, I recalled that this Government have ordered no warships at all since May 1997. The problem is that, as in so many other areas, the Government are all mouth and no performance. We are at risk of encountering the same problem with heavy airlift capacity, as there might be difficulty nailing down the British part of the purchase of 25 A400M aircraft.

I think that I have time to touch on one other point. I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence is in his place. He wrote to me this week to say that 9,144 men in the Army are medically downgraded, and have been so for more than four weeks. That is almost 10 per cent. of the Army, and I find it incredible. The hon. Gentleman knows why that is so. It is because he is closing the only military hospital, which is in my constituency. The move to Birmingham will not work and, until he confirms that the Haslar hospital will continue as a defence medical services hospital also serving the civilian population, he will not have the strength of doctors, nurses and other staff that is needed in such services.

The way not to handle defence procurement is that displayed by Baroness Symons. She wrote about the Bowman programme--a programme in complete collapse--on 25 July:

and then she scrapped it. That is exactly the reverse of what I think we should be doing. We need honesty and openness in defence procurement.

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