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4.54 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): It is a great honour to take part in this debate after the eloquent Front-Bench speech of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) who are both former Ministers. In the aftermath of Afghanistan, I urge the House to think very carefully about whether we are providing the right kind of forces for the changing world and the many threats that we face.

The European Union is addressing part of that through the European Security and Defence Initiative whereby, in effect, an Army corps is to be projected up to 2,500 miles within 60 days and sustained for a whole year. After looking at the operations in Afghanistan, it is not clear to me whether continental Europeans at any rate have the required capabilities. A huge effort will have to be made to make good large deficiencies which were well summarised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West.

First, there will have to be air superiority, and for that the Eurofighter is crucial. It is way behind schedule and well over budget, but it will have the great advantage of being a single-crew aeroplane so some of the manning problems that the Government face and which have led to the disbanding of 5 Squadron at Coningsby should not be such a difficulty. The whole range of air assets that we require—the airborne standoff radar system, the A400M, the new tankers, the Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft mark 2 and a successor to the HC4 Sea Kings for a commando brigade, be that successor either Merlin

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helicopters or tilt-rotor aeroplanes—are all required in a much shorter time scale than had been originally envisaged. However, they will have the advantage, if the Government provide the necessary funding, of pump-priming the aerospace industry, which is facing a severe downturn in its civil business.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): The hon. Gentleman has gone through a long list of possible procurement items. Is he aware of the thinking behind Congressman Allen's Bill which sought to recoup the research and development costs of missile defence and which applied to any allies to whom this proposed defence concept would be extended? Where does the hon. Gentleman think the money will come from to meet the costs of missile defence, in addition to that long list of armaments that he has read to the House?

Mr. Wilkinson: The hon. Gentleman will note that I did not include any provision for ballistic missile defence. Important as it is, the Government are still evaluating whether we really need to spend significant moneys which developing such projects will require. The hon. Gentleman is anticipating things, but that is not to say that we should not examine them with the greatest care and seriousness.

The Royal Air Force will also need a new training aeroplane—I would suggest a new version of Hawk—as a matter of urgency. Proper training and operational standards constitute a vital aspect of intervention overseas that is all too readily neglected. In that regard I turn to the House of Lords Select Committee report on the tragic accident to the Chinook mark 2 at the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is a former Minister, said that the controversy over the causes of the accident and the decision of Air Marshals Sir William Wratten and Sir John Day to declare the pilots negligent had cast a dark cloud over the reputation of the Ministry of Defence that would inhibit recruiting. I do not believe it.

The Ministry of Defence has been open at all stages about the tragic accident, which occurred in the difficult circumstances of a special mission that flew VIPs to Scotland in an inappropriate aircraft. Comments from another place and even from former ministerial colleagues such as Sir Malcolm Rifkind do not help matters. Lives were tragically lost, and there are lessons to be learned about operational procedures and training. I shall consider some of them in detail.

First, I hope that an aircraft that has not had clearance from the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down will never be allowed to perform such an important mission again. It was a fundamental mistake, and I am astonished that an aircraft with so many operational limitations was allowed to fly on the mission. It is noteworthy that the crew preferred a Chinook mark 1, perhaps partly because they were more familiar with the aircraft, but also because they knew the limitations of the Chinook mark 2, especially in icing conditions.

On 1 June, the day before the accident, the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment suspended test flying of Chinook mark 2s because of problems with flight in icing conditions. Those briefing for the sortie knew that the aircraft would probably have to fly in icing

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conditions: in cloud, at a temperature below 4 deg C. The aircraft was not cleared for flight in icing conditions below that temperature.

If the eminent officers had to fly to Fort George, it would have been more appropriate and sensible for them to travel to Inverness airport in a Hercules or BAe 146. It is incomprehensible that they all flew in one aircraft, especially one that had so many limitations, in such unsuitable weather. Clearly, the weather was marginal for flight under visual flight rules. I shall say more about that anon.

The Chinook mark 2, especially the digital engine control system, had malfunctioned on several occasions. There had also been various spurious warnings, which made the aircraft notorious. One serious technical problem was reported on form 700 only three weeks before the accident. The history of technical problems should have led briefing officers to choose another aircraft, such as a fixed-wing aeroplane that could fly safely in such weather. The senior officers who permitted the sortie to go ahead in the helicopter, in the weather conditions that I outlined, are reprehensible.

Their Lordships are wise after the event. They can provide a panoply of legal wisdom, but they have not flown helicopters at low level in difficult weather conditions. There were some weather reports along the route; one was provided by a yachtsman. However, the perspective of a yachtsman is different from that of a pilot who flies an aircraft at low level above the sea in marginal visibility at 3 nautical miles a minute.

The Royal Air Force's investigation was thorough and carefully conducted. Appointing Sir John Day, AOC 1 Group, and Sir William Wratten, AOC and Commander- in-Chief Strike Command, to conduct the review was appropriate. As commanding officers, they had to do it. As Sir William pointed out, in some 38 per cent. of cases of Royal Air Force boards of inquiry, air officers commanding have overturned the findings. They were not acting against precedent. I do not therefore believe that they deserve such criticism for their conclusions. They will have understood their overriding responsibility as air officers commanding to ensure the highest standards of flight discipline and airmanship by their crews. Captains of aircraft, regardless of circumstances, mission, the importance of the passengers and the seniority of those who sent them, have a duty to abort the mission or change the flight profile if circumstances dictate it.

It is my belief—particularly after reading the exchange between the two Air Marshals and their Lordships during the cross-examination in the other place—that the Air Marshals were justified in their belief, with the wisdom of hindsight, that the crew, who were flying in very marginal weather with high ground ahead, and with the aircraft slightly off track to the right, probably ought to have aborted, or at least got well clear of the high ground with all speed.

It is sadly clear from the accident inquiry and the inspection of the wreckage that the aeroplane struck the ground while climbing. There had been a rapid flare in the last seconds before impact, which would be consistent with the pilots having seen the high ground just before the crash occurred. The height, speed and configuration of the aeroplane were consistent with a controlled flight into high ground.

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That is not to say that there was not a malfunction. There could conceivably have been one, but if there was, how were the pilots able to tap in a new way point on the navigational computer less than one nautical mile before the high ground? If there had been a malfunction, they would have been highly preoccupied. A malfunction could conceivably have occurred when the pilots changed course towards the new way point, but such a small change of course would be unlikely to cause erratic behaviour leading to loss of control and a crash into high ground.

I conclude by justifying the decision of the Air Marshals. The House would be wise not to follow the path taken in the other place, or to try to second-guess investigations into military accidents, however tragic the circumstances and however much we sympathise with the grief of the parents of the service men who lost their lives. In an excellent letter to The Times on 9 February, the managing director of British International Helicopters, Mr. Stewart Birt, wrote:

The Air Marshals had a duty to ensure that the very best standards of airmanship were maintained, particularly for VIP flights in difficult circumstances. I do not think that the Air Marshals were in dereliction of their duty. I support their judgment, and I hope that the Ministry of Defence will as well, however tragic the circumstances were.

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