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Mr. Gray: The Minister referred to the Prime Minister committing himself to the Eurofighter as is. Can we be plain about this? Is the Minister giving an undertaking that the Government will definitely purchase 232 airframes—and if so, how do they intend to pay for them?

Mr. Ingram: That is predicated on Labour remaining in power; I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for conceding that. His point is not silly. Clearly, we can make commitments only from where we stand at this point. Under most circumstances, it has never been possible for Governments to commit future Governments—certainly not those of a different hue.

I have set out our commitment in the memorandum of understanding, and there are many commitments associated with that. There will be a tremendous payback in UK industry terms; all those benefits will flow from this. I have set out the three tranches of purchasing, and the Prime Minister made all this clear on 10 July. Who am I to say anything different? I welcome his statement because it is consistent with what we have been saying all along.

Mr. Gray: Perhaps I can clarify the position. When the Conservatives return to power in three or four years' time, we shall be firmly committed to purchasing all 232 Eurofighter aircraft. Will the Government now match that commitment?

Mr. Ingram: Well, okay, let us match commitments. Let us go down the list. When I get to the end of my speech, I would like the hon. Gentleman to say that he will stand by every one of our commitments—[Interruption.] I have given the assurance, as has the Prime Minister. I do not think that that is at variance with

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what the hon. Gentleman has said on this. The words stand, and they are very clear. That commitment remains the same, and I have set out the tranche purchasing approach on this.

I mentioned the Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile. Good progress has been made on resolving complex technical and commercial issues, and a draft contract has been circulated to partners. The UK and partner nations remain committed to the project, but the contract is unlikely to be signed before the summer. The project still needs to gain the necessary approvals in the German system. The next opportunity for the Bundestag committees to discuss Meteor—and indeed A400M—will be in September. I very much hope that they will grasp this opportunity. Officials are discussing with partners and industry the implications of a delay until September. This delay is disappointing, but we continue to do all that we can to place the contract as soon as possible. As I have just said, the same time frame applies to decisions on A400M. We are working hard to ensure that this contract can also come into effect.

Having dealt with specific sea and air capabilities, let me now highlight three particular capability achievements that contribute directly to our forces' ability to deploy, engage and win on the battlefield. The first is the delivery of the Westland Apache attack helicopter, which entered service in January last year. The arrival of Apache illustrates how we are meeting our strategic defence review commitment to deliver world-class, highly capable equipment to the armed forces, which will help to transform the battlefield. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Hereford and I are on side on this one.

The second achievement involves the Maverick anti-armour missile, which entered service with the RAF in February 2001. Lessons learned from operations in Kosovo identified the need for improvements to our capability to attack armoured targets with precision and speed. We have acted quickly to fill that gap. Thirdly, I want to highlight the delivery of the Viking all-terrain vehicle platform to the Royal Marines, which has proved a great success. Looking forward to future equipment capabilities, the MOD has signed several key contracts, including that for the delivery of a heavy equipment transporter service, and one for the next generation light anti-armour weapon.

I am also pleased to inform the House that the Ministry of Defence has today announced its intention, subject to the satisfactory conclusion of final contract negotiations, to award a contract worth some £350 million to RO Defence for the demonstration, manufacture and support of 65 Terrier armoured engineer vehicles. Terrier will replace the in-service combat engineer tractor, enabling the British Army to retain and enhance a vital operational capability provided by the Royal Engineers. This new order is very welcome news for the company and for Alvis, which will have a significant role in manufacturing the vehicles. I am sure that the management and work force at both locations will be delighted with this news.

I have already mentioned that the development of a network-centric capability will transform the way in which the United Kingdom's armed forces are able to operate. This forms a key part of the work that we have been undertaking on the new chapter to the strategic defence review. This is not just an aspiration; things are happening now to deliver the reality, providing an essential foundation on which the new chapter will build.

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The need for reliable, global military communications has been demonstrated in all recent conflicts, but especially in Afghanistan. The Skynet 5 satellite programme will ensure that we continue to have this important capability. We announced the Paradigm consortium as the preferred bidder in February and, subject to successful negotiation, we expect to place a private finance initiative contract by the end of the year.

Over the coming years, we will see great improvements in our ability to communicate, and to exchange information securely wherever we operate. A number of complementary systems will ensure that we continue to have effective command and control, whether operating independently or with our allies. Bowman will provide a secure communication and data transfer system, as well as the basis for the wider digitisation of land operations. We expect it to enter service in 2004.

We recognised the early need to improve communications, and we have introduced the personal role radio, which has proved extremely useful in Afghanistan. I can announce today that BAE Systems, in Christchurch, and Marconi Mobile, in Chelmsford, have been chosen as preferred bidders for the assessment phase of the first stage of the Falcon programme, which will provide a communication system at formation level. These two British companies have been chosen to enter the final stage of the competition for the armed forces' new, £430 million secure communication system. Successful communications are the key to success on the battlefield, and to our ability to deliver precision weapons rapidly and accurately—what we are calling network- centric capability.

Falcon's role in drawing this together, and connecting systems such as Skynet and Bowman, is key, giving senior commanders the ability to direct operations effectively on the battlefields of the future. Falcon will be able to carry a greater volume of voice and data traffic more effectively than existing equipment. It can be deployed on or off-vehicle, and moved rapidly by air into the operational theatre. It will also need less manpower to operate and to support.

Finally, Cormorant will provide a state-of-the-art, theatre-wide area communications network, and will enter service shortly.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): On talking to anybody involved in recent armed forces operations, it is clear that the key word is inter-operability—the ability to operate not only within our services, but with service men from other countries. Can the Minister guarantee today that, as the new equipment programmes come on-stream, they will be tested to ensure that they are fully inter-operable with American systems, given that, these days, we spend much more time operating with the Americans and, indeed, with our continental allies? Surely that is a key part of the programme.

Mr. Ingram: That is a very important point. Although inter-operability has been a watchword for some time, it has become the key approach in terms not only of our enhanced capabilities, but of how we encourage our European allies and aspirant NATO nations to improve their capabilities as well. We have very good relations with the United States, and if that interface is genuinely

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to deliver what we want in respect of NATO or any other partnership between allied nations, we must ensure that such inter-operability and compatibility exists. Otherwise, certain procurement decisions, such as those made by previous Governments, could well have to be scrapped.

On the projects that I have just outlined, performance in many key capability areas has been, and continues to be, impressive. However, in certain areas the rate of progress has been disappointing. Let me make it clear that, when contractors are unable to deliver equipment to agreed time frames, we do not just sit back in resignation. We are getting much smarter at dealing with the consequences of slippage.

The overall rate of slippage has reduced, as has the number of projects experiencing delay. New slippage during 2001—some 29 months across four projects—was less than half that in 2000. We are also much better at working with contractors to ensure that we get a useful capability into service at the earliest possible date, building on that initial operating capability through incremental acquisition to reach the full levels of required performance. Our approach to acceptance of the ASRAAM missile is a good example of this smart behaviour. The Ministry of Defence has taken delivery of a first batch of interim standard missiles, which offer a significant improvement over existing capability.

The Public Accounts Committee's recent report, "Ministry of Defence: Major Projects Report 2001", provides further evidence that the Department is continuing to improve cost control, that we have slowed the rate of slippage on projects, and that new equipment continues to meet the vast majority of specified technical requirements. According to the Committee:

In an earlier report, published on 23 November 2001, the NAO welcomed

We will respond formally to the PAC report—and to the Defence Committee's survey of major procurement projects—in the early autumn. It would be wrong to reply before the formal response process. [Interruption.] The Opposition complain that I have now been speaking for an hour, but I have tried to take all the interventions that would add value to the debate. We have an extensive debate on a key issue. [Interruption.] I am conscious that representation is sparse on the Benches behind the Opposition Whip—

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