Oral Answers to Questions — Royal Air Force and Royal Navy (Aircraft Replacements)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th November 1963.

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The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

Photo of Mr John Eden Mr John Eden , Bournemouth West

To ask the Minister of Defence whether it is still his intention to equip the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy with a British all-weather vertical take-off and landing fighter aircraft; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Mr John Cronin Mr John Cronin , Loughborough

To ask the Minister of Defence if it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to continue to develop the Hawker P 1154 aircraft for both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force; and if it is intended to modify this programme by purchasing foreign aircraft for the Royal Navy.

Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East

To ask the Minister of Defence if he will make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's plans for the P 1154 supersonic vertical takeoff strike fighter project.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 68, 69 and 70 together.

The problem of meeting the RA.F.'s requirement for a Hunter replacement, and the Navy's requirement for a Sea Vixen replacement, is under examination. A project study aimed at meeting both these requirements with a version of the P 1154 has run into difficulties. This study and its implications are under consideration by the Weapons Development Committee.

No decision has yet been taken, and I shall not be in a position to make any statement on the matter until I have examined in far more detail than has so far been possible the technical and financial considerations involved. This is likely to take some weeks.

Photo of Mr John Eden Mr John Eden , Bournemouth West

In view of the high hopes which have long centred on the development of a joint aircraft for the two Services, and since British industry and technological skill have for so long held the world lead in development of V.T.O.L. capabilities, would it not be deplorable if we were now required to buy an American aircraft?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

My hon. Friend must not make any assumptions about what we would or would not buy. Our present task is to examine in detail, and with great care, these project studies, because it is this machinery which makes possible the proper control of defence expenditure.

Photo of Mr John Cronin Mr John Cronin , Loughborough

Can the right hon. Gentleman say why those difficulties were not foreseen when he made his enthusiastic statement to the House on 30th July?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

The statement was that we would start a project study and the object of a project study is to identify difficulties of this kind.

Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East

Does not the Minister recall telling the House on 30th July, as reported in column 237 of Hansard of that date, first, that a decision on a common aircraft had been made, and, secondly, that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force had reached agreement on the characteristics of a common aircraft? Can he tell the House what is the point of the much publicised integration ofthe Service staffs if the Minister of Defence either has not the guts to impose his will on quarrelling subordinates, or not the wit to see that he is being "taken for a ride"?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

That is an extraordinarily facile approach to serious defenceproblems and seriously underestimates the quality of the men serving on the staffs in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. These men have made, and are making, a serious effort to develop a joint aircraft. If, in the process of an extraordinarily difficult technical job of this kind, a project study shows certain differences, that is why we have a project study. Unless we are prepared to work this machinery of feasibility studies, project studies, and the rest, very large sums of money will be wasted.

Photo of Commander Anthony Courtney Commander Anthony Courtney , Harrow East

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a slightly wider issue involved? In the absence of a surface-to-surface guided missile for the Royal Navy the fixed-wing aircraft remains the principal weapon in surface combat of naval warships. Will he bear this in mind in view of the fact that the Royal Navy must have the best aircraft for its own specific purpose?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

That is certainly one of the considerations I have very much in mind.

Photo of Mr George Wigg Mr George Wigg , Dudley

Leaving aside the right hon. Gentleman's statement on 30th July, how comes it that, in the Air Estimates, paragraph 14 states quite categorically that it has been decided that the replacement of the Hunter should be based on the Hawker P 1154? Will he tell us whether this is a lack of patriotism on his part, and that he has now to face the fact, or that these comments are reserved only for right hon. Members on this side of the House when they discover the truth?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

The House should understand and appreciate, particularly hon. Members who criticise from time to time expenditure on aircraft, that a series of very carefully planned examinations have to be made on every aircraft that is put forward. We do not go into full-scale production or development of an aircraft until these studies are complete. The object of these studies is to identify difficulties in advance before the expenditure takes place. This is the procedure we are going through and I intend that it should be completed before committing the Government or the country to very expensive aircraft.

Photo of Mr Paul Williams Mr Paul Williams , Sunderland South

To help the House to get this matter into right proportion, can my right hon. Friend say whether this is the sort of normal technical problem which comes up with the development of any new aircraft? If that is so, surely it is merely a check to the programme rather than a complete halt to it? If that is true, what effort is being made, together with our N.A.T.O. allies, to get them to accept the same specification and to buy this aircraft in due course?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

I sympathise with that point, but there is hardly such a thing as a normal technical difficulty, because they all differ very much. These are substantial problems, because the whole problem of a vertical take-off aircraft, let alone one which will be suitable for the Royal Navy as well as the Royal Air Force, is a very difficult undertaking. I am not oblivious to this question, or to the possibility of joint European or other requirements.

Photo of Mr Emanuel Shinwell Mr Emanuel Shinwell , Easington

After the project study has beer, completed, who will take final decision? Will it be Lord Mountbatten, or the right hon. Gentleman, who should remind himself from time to time that he is, in effect, a political chief?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

The decision will be a decision of Her Majesty's Government.

Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East

No one under-estimates the appalling difficulties involved in designing the sort of aircraft to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, and no one on this side of the House would disregard the need for very careful study of the financial implications, but if these difficulties had not been examined on 30th July why did he ask leave of the House on 30th July to make a special statement that the decision had been taken to produce a common aircraft? It now appears that the two Services had not even agreed on whether the crew should comprise one or two men.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

The hon. Member's recollection is not quite correct. I made a statement on the future of the Fleet Air Arm and the carrier. At that time it is true that a joint operational requirement on this matter and a study had been set in hand. On the face of it, so far as could be judged by men very well technically qualified to judge, there was a reasonable hope that this aircraft would be developed in a joint rôle. There are, as the project study has shown, substantial difficulties which have arisen in that. This is not unusual or necessarily unexpected. These things do happen in the development of aircraft.

All I say is that I cannot be pressed to produce, or authorise the production of, some aircraft—or even two aircraft, one for the R.A.F. and one for the Royal Navy—without going through these processes of study, project study and examination by the Weapons Development Committee. I hope that the House, whichis charged with some control over public expenditure and the Estimates, will support me in this attitude.