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Lord Luke: My Lords, I also should like to thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, for initiating this debate, on an issue which, judging by the press it is constantly receiving, can indeed be considered topical. It has been a most interesting and exceedingly well informed discussion covering a range of points which are most pertinent to the subject. I will not try to reiterate too many of those already made today, especially considering the transcendent expertise of the noble Lords who have just spoken.

The operational arrival of the Eurofighter Typhoon—a really excellent aircraft, I have heard from all sources—is critical to bringing the RAF's capabilities into line with those required in an air force in the 21st century. Once fully operational, it will have replaced the F3 Tornado in the air defence role and, when the ground-attack variant of the Typhoon is developed, also the Jaguar and its ground attack and reconnaissance role. It will therefore become the RAF's premier swing-role strike fighter.

Could the Minister please tell us more about the planned retirement of the F3 Tornados? When deliveries of the first tranche of Typhoon are complete, will the F3s be offered for sale to allies not involved in the Typhoon programme or will they be scrapped? Could he also tell the House when he expects to conclude a contract with the manufacturers on the ground-attack variant? Is this likely to cost more over and above the Typhoon budget as it is at present?

We on these Benches recognise that the Typhoon will play an increasingly important role in our air defence over the next 30 years. To those who suggest—as it has been suggested really rather a lot in the media—that the aircraft is obsolete and irrelevant, I say that without command of the air, ground and sea based forces are placed at serious risk. Of course we recognise that this four-nation project has been over budget and behind schedule, and that is putting it pretty mildly, but that is partly attributable to the collaborative nature of the project and partly to the
 
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advances in technology incorporated in it. In terms of upgrades, can the Minister tell me whether there are likely to be any significant advances in software between the first and second tranche?

There is no doubt that these planes are prime examples of a new military technology and that the contracts to build them are providing significant employment both here and abroad and will continue to do so for a number of years. In fact, as I understand it, we are now at a point where cancellation of tranche three would, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, be almost as expensive as going ahead. Could the Minister please confirm whether that is the case?

Much has been said about the Typhoon itself; however, these aircraft will not be of much use without sufficient trained pilots to fly them and indeed technicians to maintain them. Like the noble Lord, Lord Garden, I am a little worried whether there are enough trained pilots and technicians for the first tranche and indeed whether there will be enough coming along for the second and possibly the third tranche later on.

My eye was caught by a piece in the Times last week, with which I am sure that most of your Lordships will be familiar, concerning an alleged dispute at a senior level within the MoD that it is no longer feasible or affordable for the Government to go ahead with both the Typhoon and the planned aircraft carriers. What is the Minister's response to the article? Is his department indeed considering axing or curtailing one or other of these extremely expensive projects?

I should also like to ask the Minister what effect the cost overruns such as that seen with the Typhoon will have on other parts of the defence budget. I understand that the 20 largest major procurement projects which were originally intended to cost £44 billion have now risen to £50 billion, an increase of 14 per cent. From where will the money come to pay for those costs?

It seems that the Government are unable to manage their major procurements efficiently enough, and that means that our frontline forces have had to suffer under-funding. Our defence budget is already seriously overstretched, and as we are quite rightly committed to numerous major defence projects vital to delivering our future security at the same time as more of our Armed Forces are deployed than at any time in recent years, we simply cannot afford these endless cost overruns and interminable delays. Can the Minister inform the House what contingency arrangements the Government have made to cover any increase in costs that the next two tranches of Typhoon may incur?

The strategic value of this impressive swing-role aircraft will undoubtedly and unquestionably benefit our Armed Forces immeasurably, but the delay and overspend on a project that is far from completed, and the commitment of funds during a period of extremely sensitive defence cuts elsewhere in the Armed Forces, casts a distinct shadow over the political handling of this project. Nevertheless, I look forward very much, as always, to listening to the response of the Minister.
 
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2.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach): My Lords, I too congratulate the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, on securing this debate. I should like to thank him and the other noble Lords who have spoken for their contributions and particularly for their support, well expressed in every case, for this project. This project is an extremely important programme for the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Luke, and I stand out as the only two speakers who have not had the experience of the RAF at the very senior level that both the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Lord, Lord Garden, have enjoyed. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Luke, will forgive me if I say that the two of them spoke with obviously much more experience and expertise than perhaps he and certainly I can manage on this occasion. I am very grateful for what they have said. It is good that both were young enough to have been around at the start of this project.

A view that I am sure will be common to all Members of the House is that no matter how technologically advanced our equipment is or may become, we rely first and foremost on the quality of those who fly these aircraft and those who prepare them for flight. I am sure that the House will agree that in the RAF, as in all our Armed Forces, frankly we have the very best.

However, the dedication and professionalism of our service personnel must be supported by provision of the equipment that they need to do their job effectively. The order placed last month for the second tranche of Typhoon is solid evidence of our commitment to provide our people with the best equipment.

Typhoon will provide the RAF and our partners' airforces with an outstanding combat aircraft that, with its multi-role capability—and I break off now to say that there will not be some kind of multi-role variant, this is a multi-role aircraft now—its flexibility and its adaptability will provide the cornerstone of their fighting capability well into the 21st century. Recent operations, most recently in Iraq, have demonstrated the vital role of air power on the modern battlefield. In Typhoon we have an aircraft capable of extending this capability and meeting the threats of the future, which will enable our RAF to deliver its effects within a wider, network-enabled capability, both with our own armed services and with our allies.

It is right to say that Typhoon started out as an air superiority fighter with a secondary ground-attack capability, and commentators—both distinguished and yet still uninformed—still criticise it as a Cold War relic. I was particularly glad to hear what the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and the noble Lord, Lord Garden, said in dismissing that criticism. However, as we all know, today's operational environment demands much greater emphasis on all-weather precision and stand-off attack, while retaining the air superiority role. The Typhoon of today has been developed to meet this requirement and we will continue to adapt it throughout its life to maintain both its effectiveness and its superiority.
 
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The measures being taken to ensure an early air-to-surface capability for the tranche one aircraft provide a good example of how we are adapting Typhoon to the needs of today's and tomorrow's RAF. That will be achieved through the provision of a laser designation pod and precision-guided bombs—in this case, Enhanced Paveway II. The flexibility to equip the aircraft to meet the weapon requirements of individual partner nations is an important feature of the aircraft, which we will be exploiting. But the majority of the aircraft is common to all partner nations, including the airframe structure, engines, avionics, flight and utility controls. We are intending, as are all nations involved, to operate our own aircraft. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Garden, will be pleased to be reminded that the partner nations have developed the integrated weapon support system in order to maximise the commonality of support requirements. I take on board the points he made about that.

In due course, the tranche one aircraft will be brought up to tranche two standards. To answer the noble Lord, Lord Luke, tranche two has increased and better software. That will create a truly multi-role fleet, equipped to complement other air and land forces in a wide variety of theatres worldwide.

Perhaps I may refer briefly to tranche three. Under the four nation Memorandum of Understanding that underpins the Typhoon joint programme, the UK has undertaken to procure 232 aircraft out of a total production of 620; 55 were ordered in tranche one, with an additional 89 aircraft being purchased in the second tranche. Decisions on tranche three are not required before 2007.

I have so far spoken about capability. I turn to the significant progress we have made with Typhoon's introduction to service with the RAF, which has already taken delivery of 10 tranche one aircraft. We expect to continue delivering aircraft at a rate of approximately 13 per year. Industry does, however, have the capacity to increase production to cope with export orders.

Typhoon has now flown over 650 sorties, equating to over 900 flying hours, and is supported by BAE Systems under the very successful Case White industrial partnering arrangements. Under Case White, Typhoon is matching, and indeed exceeding, expectations, not only in its flying performance but also in terms of its reliability and availability. Since the RAF flying started, only about 3 per cent of planned flights have had to be aborted due to aircraft issues. Such a record of reliability is particularly impressive in an aircraft of this sophistication so recently introduced into service. The best example of this excellent reliability was demonstrated last year by the deployment of two brand-new aircraft to Singapore to take part in the Republic of Singapore Air Force evaluations. That is a testament to the quality of the product and to the effective working relations developed between the Royal Air Force and BAE Systems.

Consequently, it is no surprise that interest in the aircraft has been shown by a number of other nations, and we are actively supporting industry in seeking
 
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export orders. We have a special four nation committee dealing with exports alone. Others clearly recognise the aircraft's merits. Mention has been made of Austria, which has ordered 18. That is excellent news both for the Government, because it spreads the costs, and for our economy by providing high-quality work for a skilled workforce.

We are now moving towards the next major milestone in the programme—the move of the RAF Typhoon squadrons to RAF Coningsby and the build-up of the Typhoon fleet. That embraces a wide range of military planning, including the standing down of the existing systems—such as Jaguar and Tornado F3—that it will replace, the very significant personnel implications of introducing a new aircraft into service, and the preparation of infrastructure at the RAF stations from which Typhoon will operate. F3s will be put into our normal disposal system, which may include onward sale to third parties or—and I hope not—sale for scrap, as appropriate.

Preparations are almost complete following a large programme of renovation and new-build projects that will provide a modern state-of-the-art base for this state-of-the-art aircraft. Much of the RAF's current focus is on bringing Typhoon into service at Coningsby.

We will see the Typhoon Operational Conversion Unit and the Operational Evaluation Unit move to Coningsby later this year and the build-up of the unit's operational Typhoon force during 2006 and the year following. I can assure the House that we will have sufficient pilots to operate our fast jet fleet.

The Typhoon squadrons—and I hope that this will please the noble Lord, Lord Garden—will be multi-role and will replace the current single-role Tornado F3 and Jaguar squadrons. The transfer of squadrons to Coningsby kicks off Typhoon's role as a central part of Britain's fighting capability—a role that will last a very long time into this century.

A vital part of establishing our multi-role squadrons is having properly trained pilots to fly and operate the aircraft. We will provide a balanced mix of simulators and live training and have invested a significant effort to ensure that the balance is right. The balance between simulator and in-training is kept under constant review and we are confident that we have the right balance. Before proceeding with ASTA—the training programme connected with this project—the investment decision process included a full training needs analysis and investment appraisal that ensured a cost-effective balance between simulator and on-aircraft training.

Defence investments do not get much larger than Typhoon. Some might say that we should have signed up to tranche two earlier, but, on such an important investment, it was essential that we got the contract right. I am delighted that we have been able to work with our partner nations and industry to conclude tranche two negotiations. I thank all those involved for their sterling efforts in achieving that.
 
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The tranche two order is worth some £4.3 billion. That is a huge investment in front-line capability that will provide the RAF with 89 aircraft in addition to the 55 already on order under tranche one. Typhoon is not in competition with any other large project. The noble Lord, Lord Luke, asked me about that with regard to an article in the Times last week. There is no competition between the projects, and both are essential parts of our future programme.

The order forms part of a larger contract shared with our three partner nations—Germany, Italy and Spain—for 236 aircraft. It represents one of the largest European defence investments ever. The order is obviously good news for British industry as well as for the Royal Air Force. It has been estimated by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce that, during peak production, the tranche two order will help sustain 16,000 jobs with defence manufacturers and their suppliers. As importantly, it keeps alive key skills and capabilities—including system integration, specialist software, crew and escape systems and sensors—that are vital to the future prosperity of the UK's aerospace industry.

As has been rightly pointed out, however, Typhoon has not always had the smoothest of rides. That is not all that surprising for a programme of such size, complexity and importance. There have been challenges. As was pointed out, we carefully considered our planned future capabilities after the Cold War. Eurofighter was not exempt. We concluded, along with our partners—we know about the delay in the early 1990s through one of our partners—that Typhoon still had an important role to play in the less predictable post-Cold War strategic environment. That point was made clearly in this short debate.

We should also remember that Typhoon was initiated long before the Government's Smart acquisition initiatives were introduced. I believe that, if we were starting today, we would have negotiated some of the earlier challenges more deftly under Smart acquisition. Nevertheless, we are still finding ways, we hope, of improving the way in which we conduct business, by taking steps with fellow partner nations, NETMA and industry to improve the delivery and management of the project as we move forward to tranche two. We have adopted Smart acquisition policies where appropriate. For instance—this is significant—the capability of Typhoon will progressively increase as part of the Future Capabilities programme that will commence in 2005. Future weapon systems will be integrated on to the platform as and when they become available.

Typhoon will provide our Air Force with an exceptional weapons system that will be the cornerstone of the RAF's future fighting capability. The words of the RAF pilots who have flown it speak for themselves. Indeed, the words of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, who has flown it, speak for themselves. I shall quote some current pilots. One said:

Another said:

The word "awesome" was, I think, the last word in the noble and gallant Lord's speech this afternoon.
 
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Lest it be thought that those of us speaking today are biased in some way, either because of having served in the Royal Air Force or for any other reason, I must refer to the senior United States Air Force general who, fresh from an exhilarating first flight in Typhoon and, naturally, quite excited, was heard to say, "This is the best fast jet in the world". We agree. What more can be said, beyond thanking the noble and gallant Lord once again for the opportunity to commend Typhoon to the House?


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