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I hope that the hon. Lady the Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart) will forgive me if I do not follow her into the highways and byways of her speech. I want for a short time to discuss one very important aspect of the Air Estimates-strategic transport.
I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said about this matter. He was clear in his ideas about a multipurpose aircraft and the possibility of narrowing the variety of aircraft needed today. In my view we can expect this to be the future plan and trend, and we can expect that the ordering and requirements of the Services, in particular for strategic transport, will be considered more in terms of how the aircraft can be used for other purposes than purely in terms of taking our troops and equipment as quickly as possible from one place to another.
We see from the Estimates that there are twenty-two types of aircraft and that the suggestion is that the number should be reduced to a minimum of about five basic types which would serve not only the R.A.F. but, I believe, the air branch of the Royal Navy, too. When discussing questions of air transport I must declare a very special interest because the Belfast, the aircraft which has been ordered, is being made in Northern Ireland; ten of these aircraft have been ordered and the construction of them has commenced. But T want to go a little further into the policy involved. Having taken a decision that a transport aeroplane of the type of the Belfast should be ordered and that this type of aircraft should be used, we have to look a litle further and to see the importance of this decision. Ten aircraft of this type will obviously not be sufficient for the transport needs of the R.A.F. in the years ahead. In order to plan on a long-term basis, there will have to be a further decision about how many of these aircraft, or developments of this aircraft, are to be used.
It is practical to say that if a customer orders ten of an aircraft he has ordered too many not to order more and, if he has not faith in what he has originally ordered, he should not have ordered ten. This may not sound very logical, but on reflection it will be seen to be very logical.
The Belfast freighter has many potentialities. I want to draw attention to a few of them and say why in these Air Estimates we should be looking to the future not only of the R.A.F.S requirement but the way in which the R.A.F. orders can match in with the needs of the B.O.A.C. freighter transport, which is to be more and more the freight transport of the future. The Government should be examining ways in which the Belfast can be adapted, not only for the transport of men and equipment, but also for transport in civilian use.
It is interesting to note from the maps provided with the Estimates that the long hauls are very similar to those of B.O.A.C. lines. There are very similar requirements. The Belfast, with its developments and adaptations, which we know are being done at the moment—many different specifications are offered—provides and offers a wider service than any other aircraft in this type of work
I have some details of the various ways in which this aircraft can be used—not only for the transport of military personnel, but also for civilian transport. It is relevant for me to make a brief mention of a few of these. There are many different ways. The first is for troop transport. The Belfast can carry 147 troops and all their kit and gear in one jump. It can be adapted to become a double-deck troop transport and take upwards of 200 men. It can be a paratroop transport, taking two large groups of paratroopers, to be dropped in anything up to three sticks. It can be used for casualty evacuation and for the transport of many types of vehicles. It can be used for helicopter transport. It can move the standard Army trucks. It can be used for missile transport and for dropping heavy supplies.
Many people have denigrated this aeroplane and detracted from its usefulness. Many have thought that this is not the type of aircraft to be used, but its critics and detractors have faded away. I think that the only complaints now are about the delivery date. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) said that the aeroplane would not be available for three years. I assure my hon. Friend that we expect this plane to fly in 1963, which is not very far away.
This aeroplane has a very wide range. If it takes a tank, it has a range of over 2,000 nautical miles. It has a capacity of refuelling a receiver aircraft with 10,000 gallons at a radius of 1,850 nautical miles. It can refuel 5,000 gallons in a radius of 2,700 nautical miles. This all goes to prove that the manufacturers and developers are not sitting down and adopting the attitude, "We have an order for ten of these planes. This is enough to keep us going temporarily but not enough to excite us into developing new uses for the plane".
The design and development of this plane have been very interesting to watch. Today the designers are not only thinking about other ways in which it can be used, both for military and civilian use, but also how it can be adapted for short haul.
People may ask why there are not already commercial orders, especially orders for export. Many of us know the difficulties experienced by the aircraft industry. It is very hard to carry export orders, because the financing of the industry is not as satisfactory as it might be. However, there is great interest in the 'plane, although no commercial concern will commit itself until it see the 'plane in the air.
It is in the interests of the company and of the Government that these orders should be carried out as soon as possible. It is not sufficient for the Government to say, "This is the aircraft on which we have decided. This is the type. This is our policy. This is the way in which we intend to move our troops and equipment quickly from one place to another when we require to do so in emergencies". Are the Government looking ahead? Are they considering what further needs they will have for transporting troops to strategic places, when they will place the orders, and what will be the long-term line?
Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State give us some indication of what the future policy will be? Are we to get what we believe to be an economic necessity, namely a further order for the Belfast freighter? Will it be in the foreseeable future so that the company concerned can go ahead and plan accordingly? These things work in anything up to seven-year cycles, from the time of thinking about and designing a 'plane to getting it into the air. We spent many years deciding which type of aircraft was to be used. This held the whole thing back longer than was good for the country. I hope that there will be a quick decision to reorder and look at the different lines of development of the Belfast—one for the short haul and one for the long haul. They could be used by B.O.A.C. and civilian airlines. I hope that we can have some idea about the Government's thinking on this. I hope that we shall not come up against a stone wall—" We have got them. This is what we are doing". We hear plenty of that, but we never hear enough of what the Government are going to do long term.
The Belfast is a very manoeuvreable 'plane. It can be used in many areas without great cost. It can be used on a wide variety of airfields. It has great advantages. It would be of great help to those engaged in its manufacture if the policy of the Government could be made clear. I very much hope that Northern Ireland will have further orders. This will help us and, we believe, help the Government enormously in keeping our strategic lines open and in ensuring that we are still able to get our troops speedily and safely to where we want them to go.