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I am disappointed that we have suffered so much slippage in the A400M transport programme, and I am concerned at the way in which we work our ageing Hercules Lockheed C-130 fleet in such difficult circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must ensure that we provide first-class equipment for the transport
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of our armed forces. When the Main Gate approval decision was made in May 2000, the in-service date for the A400M was predicted to be December 2009. That was revised in May 2003 to an in-service date of March 2011, and Airbus Military recently announced that the initial aircraft delivery date will slip a further six to 12 months, taking us to December 2011.

At Defence questions on Monday, I was disappointed with the vague answer that I received about the numbers of A400M aircraft that we intend to procure, and when we can expect them to come into service. The delivery dates for the 25 planes that we have ordered span 2010 to 2015, and I believe that this House is entitled to be informed in much more detail of the reliability and security of our transport fleet.

Again, the joint strike fighter is an exciting prospect, but it is disappointing that it will not be ready in time to fly off our new aircraft carriers—provided, of course, that the carriers’ launch dates do not slip from 2014 and 2016. The Eurofighter Typhoon has been another tremendous success, for Lancashire in particular, even if it was a long time coming. However, we are entitled to an early decision about whether the Government intend to purchase tranche 3.

One problem for industry is that once existing orders for both air and maritime platforms are completed, there may be no new requirements for new platforms for some considerable time, so we need to make the very best of what is available to us now. Our industrial base needs certainty, too, and although the defence industrial strategy was a considerable achievement, we seriously need an update.

In the Minister’s opening remarks, he referred to the Government’s review of the budget over the next three years, 10 years, or whatever, covering 2008-09 to 2010-11 and thinking even further ahead. I accept completely that they may need to make some difficult decisions, but whatever is agreed we should adopt a realistic and affordable programme. If we need to commit to an entire equipment programme, we should get on with it, instead of allowing programmes to slip further and further in the hope that no one will notice. Most importantly, if the Government are prepared to make such a decision, none of us should play party politics with the issue. It is far too important to play games with. I urge the Government Front-Bench team and the Ministry of Defence firmly to decide our future requirements, and to do so very soon.

4.44 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I should like to associate my comments with those of other right hon. and hon. Members about the brave members of our armed forces who have sacrificed their lives in operational theatres such as Iraq and Afghanistan. That was brought home to me only too graphically when an officer whom I got to know completed his tour of duty in Iraq and within a few months was having to tell his family that this year there would be no summer holiday with him present because he had to go back to Iraq. That brings home in human terms exactly what tours of duty really mean, particularly for those who are left behind in this country.

Equally, none of the equipment programmes that we have discussed could occur were it not for the skilled personnel of the defence companies of this country. I
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think particularly of the BAE Systems work force at Warton in my constituency—the engineers, software developers and so forth. Without the human dimension, none of these systems would be possible.

I am struck by one of the overriding themes of the debate, which was built on by the comments of the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) about the British contribution. I am a great believer in what the United Kingdom’s defence industrial base can do, either singularly or working in concert with our partners in Europe, to ensure that we maintain a capability over which we have some degree of control. That was recently brought home to me when I read in the newspapers of the possible removal of senior air force personnel in the United States after its new Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, questioned some of the blunders that had been made. In the same article, questions were raised about the future of American programmes such as the F22—a highly complex, very expensive fighter that had attracted the attention of the Japanese in meeting their own air defence requirement. If that programme were to be sacrificed, the overtures that BAE Systems has been making to the Japanese about a possible purchase of the Eurofighter Typhoon would have much better prospects. Unless we can keep such programmes going, export opportunities such as that to Japan, or possibly even, in the long term, to India, will not arise. I could not support the idea that in future we should simply sacrifice our defence procurement requirements to whatever comes off the shelf from somebody else; that is not tenable. The example of the possible export of the Eurofighter illustrates why we must have control over those capabilities.

Mark Pritchard: My right hon. Friend makes an absolutely vital point, which is that this country has its own defence requirements. We want to support the British defence industry, but when there are countries that are purchasing the same products as we are, and when we need that kit and capability, it is vital that those products are delivered to this country first and to a foreign country second.

Mr. Jack: I concur with my hon. Friend’s contribution; I am glad that he underscores the importance of what I have said. In the aerospace industry, we are good at doing what we are doing, whether constructing aircraft, missiles, radar or ancillary equipment, or, in the case of Rolls-Royce, helping to build, in concert with others, the engines that power those aircraft.

I salute the Government for their investment with BAE Systems in the further development of unmanned and autonomous air vehicles, which is very much what future, post-Eurofighter Typhoon projects will be based on. However, if we are to make those projects work, or to update projects such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, we must keep in place the skilled work forces to enable the job to be done. That brings us essentially to the role of the Government as the single most important customer for those companies and technologies, and underscores the need to ensure that the objectives of the defence industrial strategy and the defence technology strategy weave their way through what the MOD does in future.

I was concerned when my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence,
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indicated that there might have been a breakdown in the work of the noble Lord Drayson on the partnership arrangements, of which he was the author, that were evolving with industry under the defence industrial strategy. If that breakdown becomes reality, the chance of sustaining such teams of experts becomes ever more difficult.

The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East mentioned tranche 3 of the Eurofighter. Could those on the Government Front Bench, in the spirit of clarity and openness for which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire asked, for once be candid with the House about exactly what is going on? About a year ago, I sat in this House listening to the Chief of the Air Staff, who said, on the record, that a number of options—zero, 22, 44 or 88 aircraft—were being considered. I am aware that other variations on those numbers and timings of the off-take are being considered. I am also aware that the Government have a cash-flow problem, and that other partners in the Eurofighter consortium have agreed their off-take.

Whatever the numbers being considered, they have an implication. If we go for a lower number than we should in order to be compatible with the Government’s promise that they remain committed to all 232 Eurofighter Typhoons, it could mean a substantial rearrangement of the work-share programme, which would affect the thousands of jobs in the aerospace industry in the north-west. BAe did an excellent job with Oxford Economics of establishing what that would mean in personal economic terms. There are about 60,000 jobs associated with the aerospace industry in the north-west, among 1,200 companies, which all work together on major projects. If we were to reduce the numbers, there could be some significant knock-on effects—not just at BAe’s plants, but in other small and medium-sized enterprises that are the lifeblood of the north-west’s engineering economy.

The Government also ought to be clear on the idea that they can somehow trade the Government-to-Government deal of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons with Saudi Arabia against their obligations to ensure that the RAF is properly equipped with the right number of planes. There should be candour on these matters in the House, instead of the ducking, weaving answers that I have had every time I raise the subject. The work force at Warton would like some degree of certainty about the future. They recognise the stretched nature of the defence budget, but the time is right for the Government to make their views clear. It is interesting that I say that at a time when we read in the newspapers that tests in United States air force ranges in Nevada on the operational capability of the Eurofighter Typhoon show how well the aircraft is performing in what is as near as possible an operational activity. If the long-term export prospects of the plane are to be realised, the more the UK Government honour their commitment to the project, the better.

I come to the joint strike fighter project, which was referred to earlier. I would like to see some tangible demonstration that the Government are, as Lord Drayson made clear, confident that they have solved the technology transfer issues that underpin the operational capability of the aircraft. No one has said anything, but Lord Drayson was very clear. He said that if that point was not demonstrable he would walk away from the project.
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My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire indicated that the clock is ticking on the decisions that have to be made about what will operate from the aircraft carriers. The Government owe it to the House to tell us in a straightforward way whether the United States are playing ball and showing openness on that point. I seek a reassurance from the Minister that we will not go too far down the road of committing ourselves to the next stages of the joint strike fighter process until we can be certain that the short take-off and vertical landing—STOVOL—version of the aircraft is capable of delivering, as they say, what it says on the tin.

Finally, I turn to the matter of unmanned air vehicles and autonomous air vehicles. It is interesting that names such as HERTI, Fury and Taranis are becoming the new lexicon of the aerospace industry in the north-west. I was delighted to read that HERTI has been deployed successfully in Afghanistan and that Fury has been to the San Diego exhibition in the United States. It demonstrated to the Americans that, in a relatively short time, we in the United Kingdom have been able to develop an unmanned air vehicle with a weapons capability, at a price that is probably much lower than that of the equivalent American product. That is extremely good news from the standpoint of our armed forces and industrial base. Again, it shows the benefit of our being able to maintain our own aerospace capability.

Some 250 people are currently employed on those projects, and in fairness the Government have supported Taranis. I hope that they will continue to provide an economic underpinning for those vital new technologies. They show once again that British innovation can speedily develop systems that are much needed in the field, at a lower cost than the Americans and probably with a higher operational capability.

I hope that, if the Minister is not able to deal with all my points in his wind-up, he will at least write to me in some detail to supply me once and for all with some hard answers, particularly on tranche 3.

4.55 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who always talks not only in a spirited way about his constituency industry interests but knowledgeably about the aerospace industry.

I wish to mention the work of the Defence Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said that it works on a cross-party basis to try to get good value for money from the defence industry, and that is true under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). Some of the time that I most enjoy in this place is spent in the Defence Committee.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, also drew on his considerable experience to remind us in no uncertain terms that procurement and its failures are as old as warfare itself. He and other hon. Members said that we are perhaps not paying a high enough premium for the defence of this country, and I agree. I hope that we will be able to set out a strong case for that.

I am not absolutely convinced of the need for a new strategic defence review. The Government have announced a review against the background of the security and
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resilience strategy, and the Defence Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry examining the implications of that strategy from the MOD perspective. That review may well come up with some answers more quickly and in a more focused way. I hope that it will provide the certainty that people are looking for on certain matters, but of course the history of the issue is strewn with a slightly different experience. Maybe I will turn out to have been over-optimistic.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, said that Nostradamus had had some success in his predictions. That reminded me of Machiavelli, who advised republicans—not princes in this case—that to try to guide a flood when it came, they needed to build bridges and dams. In the same way, we need to be agile in procurement and build capabilities that can flex to fast-changing circumstances and the threats that we face. The Government’s need to weave that into the procurement process is perhaps greater than ever before.

It is certainly important that the Government get procurement right. There is always a tension between procurement and personnel in the defence budget, and money lost through overruns, delays and project difficulties is money that could have been spent on pay, accommodation, personnel and other improved kit. During the course of our inquiry we heard about major changes in the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency, and about the transformation into Defence Equipment and Support. We need to exercise a considerable degree of caution about the speed of those changes, particularly given the reductions in personnel, although the savings from that may, in the end, be welcome. However, speed in change can sometimes result in cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. We will need to keep a close eye on that over the coming months.

Before I move on to naval matters, as hon. Members would probably expect me to, let me say that we in Devonport are still trying to get our heads round the idea of becoming a base for the manufacture of vehicles for use by the Army and the Marines. I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to clarify a little the different types of vehicle that we are talking about and the roles that they play. There is a huge demand for the Supacat vehicles that are being manufactured in Devonport, and they are welcome when they arrive at their deployed destination.

A year after Babcock took over responsibility for Devonport Management Ltd, which is no more—all the logos have been changed, and Devonport is now the UK base for Babcock Marine—and following the naval base review, there is a great deal of interest in Plymouth and Devonport in what the process means for our local industry and work force. I am looking forward to a meeting in early July, to which I will bring some of the community leaders from Plymouth to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces what the changes may involve.

Certain questions flow for Devonport from the fact that the joint venture has been formed and that the order for the future carriers can now be placed. HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious are planned to leave service in 2012 and 2015 respectively. In the meantime, they will still require maintenance and docking, especially as they are getting older, as older vessels often need
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more attention. There is some interest in how that will pan out, as Devonport undertook refits and maintenance on the Invincible class in the 1980s and early 1990s.

There will obviously be disappointment about what I am sure was a difficult decision to make on the Type 45s, if for no other reason than that HMS Daring has well exceeded expectations in her sea trials. The six Type 45 destroyers that have been ordered to replace the Type 42 destroyers will certainly be a great asset to the Royal Navy. I would like to know—if not today, then at some point—whether consideration is being given to extending the lives of the later Type 42 destroyers. Even without the Sea Dart, they could still be useful in undertaking some of the general purpose tasks, to which I will return when I talk about the numbers of frigates and destroyers, that were referred to earlier.

Before that, let me mention in passing the Astute programme. As the Defence Committee has uncovered in so many of our inquiries, it is essential that sufficient orders are placed, in order to keep up the drumbeat and to keep up the skills base. That is as important to the future deterrent as it is to the current Astute programme, not only to ensure that the Navy receives the submarines that it requires, but to ensure that the skills necessary to build those submarines are not lost before work begins on the successor to Trident. I hope that the Under-Secretary will confirm that it is still the intention to order seven boats and tell us that he understands that confirming when orders for further units will be forthcoming would allow BAE Systems to plan with greater certainty and, potentially, keep the costs down.

Much has been made of the numbers of frigates and destroyers being built but, as I set out in considerable detail in my Adjournment debate on 5 March, I believe that simply building greater numbers of ships is an over-simplistic answer. We need a wide, balanced and flexible range of capabilities. The Royal Navy’s warships have always been multi-purpose. Destroyers protect carriers and amphibious ships from air attack, while frigates have the primary role of hunting submarines. Both have the secondary role of carrying out a range of medium to low-level tasks, from anti-piracy and counter-drugs operations to humanitarian missions and guard ship duties.

We have always ensured that the ships are state of the art, in order to be effective in their primary roles. The Type 23 frigate, together with its Merlin helicopter, is the quietest and most effective anti-submarine frigate in the world. The Type 45 destroyer, with its Aster missiles and Samson radar, is also world class. However, this has had the effect of pushing up costs to the point at which it is no longer possible to build them in sufficient numbers to fulfil their secondary roles. The cost of a Type 45 is approximately £1 billion.

It is therefore time for us to consider separating the two roles. A frigate undertaking humanitarian operations in the Caribbean during the hurricane season does not really need to carry anti-submarine weaponry. Nor does a destroyer intercepting pirates off west Africa really need the world’s most advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Perhaps it is time for us to develop a small, flexible design for an escort—a light frigate that we can build in sufficient numbers to carry out that multitude of tasks. The future surface combatant has been mentioned, and
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I hope that the Minister will set out whether that is the direction that the future surface combatant will take us in, with a capability to be adapted by spiral insertion to meet what are by common consent the uncertain and changing threats and roles that we shall face in the future.

In conclusion, I shall return to the point at which I started, and stress the importance of getting the underlying procurement process right. Our Defence Committee report was broadly positive about the direction of travel, although we certainly have concerns about the speed of change and about the generation and mix of skills. The aim must be not just to take out cost but to improve quality and speed of decision making, and I believe that the Chair of the Select Committee was absolutely right to sound a note of caution. The coming months promise to bring plenty to keep our Committee busy on the procurement front, and I look forward to the discussions that I shall shortly have with community leaders about the prospects for Devonport’s continuing important role in supporting the Royal Navy and our vital deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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