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RAF Procurement

2. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): How many new aircraft his Department plans to procure for the RAF; and if he will make a statement. [143712]

3. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): How many new aircraft his Department plans to procure for the RAF; and if he will make a statement. [143713]

8. Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): How many new aircraft his Department plans to procure for the RAF; and if he will make a statement. [143718]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Including aircraft on order, we currently plan to acquire 232 Eurofighter multi-role aircraft; 25 A400M transport aircraft; 25 C130J transport aircraft; 21 Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft; eight Chinook mark III support helicopters; 22 Merlin mark III support helicopters; and five modified Global Express jets to carry airborne stand-off radar. We will also lease four C17 transport aircraft.

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In addition, there are several projects where the exact number of aircraft that the RAF will use has still to be determined. Those include the future strategic tanker aircraft; the future carrier-borne aircraft; the future offensive air system; the support, amphibious and battlefield rotorcraft; and the UK military flying training system programmes. Some of those programmes are planned to involve private finance initiative solutions where the aircraft will not be owned by MOD.

Mr. Hoyle: Obviously, we welcome those orders and the commitment to BAE Systems in the north-west, which specialises in defence aircraft, but does my hon. Friend share my worry that redundancies are taking place in the north-west with a full order book? The worry is that the company will not be able to complete the orders that the Government have provided the north-west with and benefit from the work that could come out of the joint strike aircraft.

Dr. Moonie: We share my hon. Friend's concern about potential job losses in the north-west. Given the size of the programme to which we are committed, together with the likely outcome in relation to the other aircraft that I mentioned, the company should have a secure future.

Mr. Borrow: My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern in the households of many thousands of my constituents following the redundancy announcements and expected job losses at Warton and Salmesbury in Lancashire. Can he reassure me and them that the orders for Eurofighter and the 6,000 jobs that depend on those orders are secure? Does he understand that the less than wholehearted support for the Eurofighter project from the Conservative party causes my constituents concern about their future?

Dr. Moonie: I am happy to tell my hon. Friend, who is assiduous in looking after his constituents' interests, that the present programme for Eurofighter is constructed on a solid base. I am happy to say that the Greeks, who announced their intention to purchase Eurofighter, have confirmed that the purchase will go ahead, thereby underpinning the security of long-term jobs in his constituency.

Mr. Hendrick: Will my hon. Friend comment on the disgraceful way in which BAE Systems announcedthe job losses, given in particular the recent Indian Government announcement that they intend to buy the Hawk jet? Many of the job losses are associated with the work force on that jet.

Dr. Moonie: It is always disappointing when workers learn about their future through other sources, rather than directly. The order book looks quite promising. In his recent visit to India, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was assiduous in promoting the interests of the Hawk aircraft. I hope that redundancies will not be nearly as severe as has been forecast.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): To put that impressive-looking list in perspective, will the Minister, first, tell us what proportion of existing RAF aeroplanes are airworthy, and secondly, confirm that the number of

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fast-jet fighter pilots is now almost 20 per cent. below manning levels? Are we approaching through the back door the era of unmanned flight?

Dr. Moonie: Unmanned flight seems to be a capacity of the Conservative party. I do not have to hand the figures on current levels of airworthiness--which is hardly surprising, as the matter is somewhat complicated--but I should be very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with that information.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The nation will have been pleased to hear the Minister reconfirm that the Government are to acquire 232 Eurofighters. Will he also take this opportunity to reconfirm that there is no slippage whatever in their delivery? In that context, when will the final C130J be delivered to RAF Lyneham in my constituency?

Dr. Moonie: I can confirm that, in the past, there was slippage in the Eurofighter programme--most of which occurred under the previous Government, and is therefore not really a matter for us. We have managed to stabilise the programme--trials are going well--and we hope that it is now on target.

The C130J is clearly a most worthwhile aircraft. I do not have a firm delivery date on the final aircraft, but the in-service delivery date of the 12th aircraft was June 2000. I shall certainly provide the information to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): May I take the opportunity to remove all ambiguity on the matter, as there is too much misinformation and, sometimes, damned lies from certain quarters--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not referring to any Member of this House.

Mr. Davies: Of course not; I said from certain quarters, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I just wanted to be clear about that.

Mr. Davies: I can give you that assurance absolutely, Mr. Speaker. I also make it absolutely clear that Conservative Members are fully committed to all those programmes, a number of which we launched ourselves, including the Eurofighter and the C130J.

It is very curious that the Government have made no statement today about the joint strike fighter. This morning, there was a report from the Press Association that Ministers were about to do what we have been urging them to do and sign up to the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the project. May I ask Ministers for an assurance that, if they do take that decision, they will come to the House, as they should, and make a proper statement, so that we can question them, rather than simply leaking the decision to the press?

Dr. Moonie: I am happy to say that we have certainly not been involved in leaking anything to the press. I am also happy to say that it is normal to wait for a question before one answers it; and, having had a question, I shall

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answer it. Although no decision has yet been made on whether we will take the joint strike fighter, we remain fully involved in its development, which is still at a very early stage. It is also no secret that that development is about to proceed to the next stage. Later this week, my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement will visit the United States to progress the discussions further.

European Rapid Reaction Force

4. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If he will make a statement about British armed forces involvement in the European rapid reaction force. [143714]

5. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East): What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts about European defence co-operation. [143715]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): There is no standing European rapid reaction force. The United Kingdom has identified a pool of forces and capabilities that would enable it to make a powerful contribution to operations in support of the European Union's common foreign and security policy, when NATO as a whole is not engaged. Participation in any particular operation, and the nature of our contribution, will be matters for decision by the United Kingdom Government in the light of circumstances at the time.I have regular discussions with both my EU and NATO counterparts on all aspects of European defence.

Mr. Bercow: I thank the Secretary of State for that woefully inadequate reply. Given that 60 pages of the Nice treaty provide for a separate EU military staff committee and organisation, a strategic planning capability, a satellite centre, an institute of security studies and a force catalogue comprising 100,000 men, 400 combat aircraft and100 vessels, why cannot he understand what the former British ambassador to NATO, Sir John Weston, emphasised last week--that with a European Union army, NATO will be progressively downgraded as the principal instrument of western defence and security? How does he justify ignoring historical experience and military common sense alike through the pursuit of that craven and foolhardy approach?

Mr. Hoon: Again, I emphasise that there is no European army. The Government are seeking to improve the capabilities of European nations, and the new arrangements will prove an extremely effective means of achieving that. In particular, they will be based on the closest possible ties with NATO. As the hon. Gentleman would have realised if he had read his background documents on Nice more carefully, provision is included for operational planning to be conducted at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Notwithstanding his observations, there is no intention to establish an EU operational planning capability.

Mr. Crausby: Does my right hon. Friend agree that European nations must work together on defence in order to support NATO? Will he confirm that that will involve

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the interchange of kit between European nations? Are not the A400M and the Meteor prime examples of European co-operation?

Mr. Hoon: I am fairly sure that it was President Kennedy who first spoke about a European pillar for NATO. It is in the interests of NATO, the United States and European nations for Europe to be capable of making an effective contribution to the alliance. Nothing would destabilise the alliance more than a perception in the United States that European nations are not prepared to play their part. That is precisely why we are seeking to improve our European capabilities--to strengthen NATO, not to weaken it.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Who in the military chain of command will be responsible for force generation in respect of any force decided under the new arrangements, and what role will the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe have?

Mr. Hoon: Force generation will be conducted precisely as it is currently conducted for multinational operations. There will be an assessment in the United Kingdom of the forces that we can contribute, and that will be set against the situation with which we are required to deal. Part of the planning currently under way concerns the variety of scenarios that will be tested in order to see what forces Europe can contribute. That work will be done carefully by the allies as part of the process of ensuring that a range of capabilities is available. Part of the reason for such a process is to ensure that gaps will be identified; indeed, some have already been recognised. Work will then be undertaken by European nations to improve capabilities. It is important for a close connection to exist between European Union and NATO planning experts.

DSACEUR will be in a crucial position in giving practical advice on the nature of planning that is required. We continue to negotiate the matter with our European allies as part of the NATO process.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): In this European defence arena, does my right hon. Friend envisage that our troops will still use depleted uranium? Given that the Ministry of Defence was warned about the issue 10 years ago and that increasing circumstantial evidence is available from troops in America, Iran, Europe and elsewhere, should not the burden of proof be on the Ministry and on Governments, instead of on individuals who are ill? It is they who currently face the burden of proving that their illnesses are a direct result of the use of depleted uranium.

Mr. Hoon: If my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying so, the issue is rather more complicated than he suggests. In the absence of any specific evidence to link depleted uranium with any particular illness suffered by any individual, it is extraordinarily difficult for any Government to prove a negative. That is what his question invites the Government to do, but it is not possible. What is required is that the best scientific and medical evidence available to the Government be relied on in taking decisions on the use of a highly effective weapon.

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Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Have the Government entered into any unpublished agreements on the proposed EU military capability?

Mr. Hoon: No.

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