F111K Aircraft Contract

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st May 1967.

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Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East 12:00 am, 1st May 1967

The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) makes two types of contribution to our discussions on defence. On the big issues, he confines himself to an oracular ambiguity which enables him to pose as a profound thinker without ever saying what precisely his policy is. On the small issues, all we get from him is a pedantic nitpicking. He builds up elaborate structures of argument to a dizzy height—but always on false or inadequate foundations and always of staggering irrelevance to the issues which the House should be discussing.

What we had this afternoon was an example of his second style. I shall deal with the points that he made as I go along, but my main purpose—and I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to do it—is to explain yet again, and as fully as I can within the limits of national security, what we want this aircraft for, the sort of specification required to meet its rôle, how the F111K measures up to the operational requirement, what it costs, how the dollar cost is being covered, and, finally, though my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Technology will speak at greater length on this, the part played by the F111K in an overall programme of aircraft procurement which is calculated to preserve the British aircraft industry as a technological leader in Europe and the world—[Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite obviously think that that is a matter at which to snigger, but we on this side of the House believe that the aircraft industry has a future in this country, though only on the basis of the sort of programme which we have given to it. In the course of my speech, I will deal with the points which right hon. and hon. Gentlemen may want to make later.

First, I want to explain what the aircraft is for, its rôle in the Royal Air Force, and indeed in the Government's defence policy as a whole. I want to make it clear to hon. Members on the Liberal benches and others who are under a misapprehension here that the F111K is not being bought to replace the V-bombers as a strategic nuclear delivery system. Britain's contribution to the strategic deterrent will pass from the V-bombers in a few years' time to the Polaris submarines. The F111K, like the TSR2 which it replaces in our programme, is planned as a tactical strike and reconnaissance aircraft delivering conventional weapons in the strike rôle. Of course, it has the capability for carrying nuclear weapons: so has a balloon; but that is not why we are buying it. If we wanted it for dropping nuclear bombs, we would not buy the highly sophisticated electronic equipment which it will carry to permit accurate delivery of conventional weapons on point targets. One does not need that sort of thing with a nuclear bomber. The V-bombers themselves, when they hand over their nuclear rôle to the Polaris submarine force, will supplement the F111K for tactical strike with conventional weapons against targets whose defences can be penetrated by aircraft less sophisticated than the F111K.

The Liberal Party seems to believe that the R.A.F. will not need an aircraft for reconnaissance and tactical strike at all in the 1970s, or at least not one so sophisticated as the F111K. Do let us remember—and I wish that newspapers in the country would remember it—that this is an aircraft which comes into squadron service in two years' time, in 1969; and I will deal with the delivery points which the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West made in a moment. Therefore, the important question is to decide whether we are likely to need this type of capability in the 10 years following 1969, and not whether we are likely to need it or whether it would be relevant in the 1980s or 1990s.

Hon. Members on the Liberal benches and some other hon. Members believe that such an aircraft is unnecessary in Europe and that Britain will have no military responsibilities whatever outside Europe in 1969 requiring it. If that is what they believe, they are wrong on both points.

As we said in this year's Defence White Paper, the aim of our diplomacy is to produce a situation outside Europe in which the local peoples can live at peace with one another without the continuing presence of external forces. But as I indicated earlier this afternoon, it is not possible, at this moment, to say when this can be achieved, and the right hon. Gentleman particularly asked me not to try to suggest a date for it. I do not know anyone who thinks that it would be possible to produce such a situation and to withdraw all our forces from outside Europe within two years from now. To the extent that we can make progress in reducing our forces outside Europe—we have done much already in this respect and we hope to do more, as again I said earlier—our Commonwealth partners overseas are likely to want us most of all to retain a capability for helping them in case of need with the sophisticated air and naval forces which they themselves cannot now afford. That is a point which was put strongly to me by the two Commonwealth Governments with whom I discussed this type of problem last week in South-East Asia.

This might still be the case even after circumstances had permitted us to leave our bases in the area altogether. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) believes that we should maintain a commitment to help Australia in her defence, even though he believes we should leave Singapore and Malaysia in the immediate future. It is difficult to think of any contribution which we could make to Australia's defence which would not require us to have this type of capability in our armoury.

In my view, that is looking further ahead than we can clearly see at present. But, even in that situation—and still more while we have forces based outside Europe—we shall have to have aircraft with the capability to provide tactical strike and reconnaissance wherever our troops may be. Tactical strike and reconnaissance is the military umbrella which we must have to protect our forces —land, sea, or air—from attack. It would be militarily and morally indefensible to keep forces where they were subject to attack, or to send forces somewhere where they were likely to be subject to attack, unless we could provide them with the protection which they would then need. This protection applies to all stages of a crisis—before as well as after fighting has broken out.

First, and critically important, is the reconnaissance capability of the aircraft. Unless we know what is going on, we cannot make the necessary military dispositions or take the necessary diplomatic action which may, by themselves, nip potential trouble in the bud and prevent fighting from breaking out. In 1964, reconnaissance aircraft provided us with the first information of a developing crisis over Cyprus, without which we might have been unable to prevent general war in the Eastern Mediterranean and perhaps in Europe as a whole. Without reconnaissance aircraft, the Americans could not have obtained the information of Soviet missile sites in Cuba which may have enabled them to prevent a global thermo-nuclear holocaust.