With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about airborne early warning aircraft.
Following the NATO ministerial meeting on 25th March, the Government have given further consideration to their position on the provision of these aircraft to meet the requirements of the Alliance. As I made clear at the meeting, we have already agreed to two postponements of the NATO decision, which is urgently required if timely provision of airborne early warning cover for the NATO area is to be achieved.
As the House knows, we have maintained an alternative national development based on the Nimrod aircraft as a fall-back option in case of failure by NATO to agree on a system for the whole Alliance. This development has so far been funded at a low level, but if it is not to be delayed further, a substantial increase in the rate of expenditure on it is now necessary. In the light of the continued uncertainty about the procurement of the AWACS system by NATO, we have decided that we must now go ahead with the Nimrod system, which, subject to the successful conclusion of the necessary contract negotiations, will now proceed to full development.
In taking this decision, the Government have taken full account of the arguments put forward in NATO for further delay to enable outstanding questions on the procurement of the Boeing E3A AWACS aircraft to be further studied. Our decision to go ahead with Nimrod, however, will give the Alliance an urgently needed and modern airborne early warning capability to replace the Shackletons now operating in the United Kingdom air defence region and in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas. Our decision does not exclude the possibility of a collective NATO solution to the requirement.
In developing the Nimrod system, we shall aim to secure the maximum inter-operability and compatibility between Nimrod and whatever additional airborne early warning aircraft the Alliance may eventually decide to procure. I suggested to my NATO colleagues that a single NATO airborne early warning force, though it would be an ideal solution, is not the only way in which the airborne early warning requirement could be met. We shall continue to work for arrangements which will secure maximum military effectiveness from the resources which the Alliance eventually decides to devote to the airborne early warning task.
May I, on behalf of the Opposition, welcome most warmly the Secretary of State's statement backing the Nimrod, which is much more than a fall-back option, being a superb piece of British technology, and say how much it will be welcomed by the workers at Hawker Siddeley and Marconi-Elliot, as well as by many hundreds of sub-contractors whose jobs will be involved?
While we regret, as the right hon. Gentleman does, the absence of a NATO decision, as we regard an Alliance-wide airborne early warning force as a high priority, we believe that Britain has loyally supported the NATO solution long enough and that we have been patient for sufficient time. We therefore strongly support this decision by the Secretary of State, which will provide the much-needed replacement for the airborne early warning Shackletons, which are very aged, will save hundreds of high technology jobs in this country, and, even more important, will preserve our high technology team, which is unique in Europe.
Finally, I wish to put three questions to the Secretary of State. First, how many Nimrods are to be funded? Secondly, will this decision involve the construction of any new aircraft, or merely the modification of existing aircraft? Thirdly, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that this force of British Nimrods will be fully inter-operable with any NATO airborne early warning concept which may come into being at a later date?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. All the considerations that he has mentioned were among those we took fully into account.
The hon. Gentleman asked me three questions. The first stage is to develop the system, on which a good deal of work still has to be done. We envisage a requirement of 11 aircraft. The decision does not require the building of new aircraft because we shall have the Nimrod Mark I available for adaptation. The work of adaptation will be considerable, and we envisage employing about 1,500 people for five years on the task.
In considering the performance of Nimrod, we are satisfied that it will discharge both our share of the NATO requirement and our own national early warning need. We shall do all we can to make it totally inter-operable and in every way able to contribute to the collective system of NATO and the common funded purposes of the Alliance.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be widespread relief and gratitude at his decision, not least among aviation workers in the Hawker Siddeley organisation? Is he further aware that this feeling will be shared to the full by hon. Members on this side of the House, and not least by the dedicated crews flying the Nimrod squadrons in northern waters, with whom a number of us recently had the honour of flying?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. Apart from the physical provision of aircraft, we do not want the expertise of our aircrews in the airborne early warning rÔle—a unique British capability—to be lost. I join in paying tribute to those discharging that duty now.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this decision will be widely welcomed by all those who have campaigned for the British project, both in this House and among the trade unions at Woodford and Boreham Wood? Will he confirm that the Government will make the decision the start of a new policy of supporting British industrial capabilities in the awarding of defence contracts?
I would not regard it as a new policy of supporting British defence industries. That is what we have been doing for a very long time. But, of course, I must make clear that one has to judge defence needs and defence expenditure and we must face the fact frankly that where we need only a small number of a particular weapon it will not always be economic and possible to satisfy that need from totally British sources. If we want to give reality to the two-way street concept of a European capacity interchangeable with that of the United States, we cannot expect on every occasion to have purely British weaponry.
Dr. M. S. Miller:
Is my right hon. Friend aware that this wise decision will be welcomed by British technology in general, including Rolls-Royce as well as avionic manufacturers? Not only is it a wise decision but one that he will not regret, because the Nimrod can do everything that the American aircraft can do. Will he accept the thanks of the approximately 7,000 people whose jobs are safeguarded by the decision? It will also safeguard the long-term technology involved, which will stand the country in good stead for the future.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for doing me the service of pointing out that sometimes wise decisions are nevertheless the subject of later regret. I hope that that will not be so in this case. Indeed, one of the factors in making the decision is the confidence that has been shown in the aircraft both by the firms concerned and by their workers. I have placed much reliance on the claims they make for its performance and their ability to do it at the cost figures they have quoted.
May I briefly join the unanimous acceptance and welcome which has so far marked the right hon. Gentleman's statement, and ask three questions? First, will he confirm that the cost to this country will be no greater than if we contributed to the Boeing project? Secondly, is it not the case that we are safeguarding 7,000 jobs as opposed to a total of 400 at the most if we had joined in the American sub-contracting work? Thirdly, is not the Nimrod project technically far more in keeping with our coastal requirements than the Boeing project, so that in effect we gain three times round?
It is impossible to give precise cost figures because we have yet to enter into contractual negotiations with the firms. One of the difficulties of the AWACS project is that in NATO we are far from agreeing cost provisions over the whole range. However, I expect the Nimrod project to cost more than our share would have been had we been successful in getting the AWACS project. The Nimrod, being specifically designed for the purpose, will have the additional capacity over sea, which could be made available for AWACS, since it was not in its original design. One cannot be too precise about the number of jobs involved but I would not quarrel with the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there is an additional 5,000 to 6,000 jobs for the country in the Nimrod programme which we would not have expected directly from the AWACS programme.
Will my right hon. Friend note the welcome that has been given—on both sides of the House, both above and below the Gangway—to the strengthening of our defences? Will he consider isuing a short White Paper showing how employment will be expanded in the defence industries in various parts of the country?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the earliest possible warning that he has given of what is a correct decision on every possible criterion which will be widely welcomed, not least in the Manchester area. Is there a possibility of future sales to other NATO countries of the maritime reconnaissance Nimrod in addition to the very welcome announcement that he has made today about the airborne early warning system?
I would hope that there were export possibilities, but it would be wrong to mislead the House by saying that I have an optimistic view. I think that it will be a limited possibility. However, I have made clear and will continue to make clear to our NATO Allies that, if part of other NATO tasks are required to be discharged by Nimrod aircraft, we would be happy to make additional Nimrods available under any common funding arrangement they may reach. I think that Nimrod could discharge rÔles outside our own particular area of responsibility.
I appreciate that the Secretary of State had no alternative other than to take the decision that he has in the interests of national security and I welcome the support that he has received from quarters not normally associated with supporting him on defence matters. Will he now confirm that the best thing we could do, in addition to making this aircraft available to ourselves, would be to spend more money on developing it in such a fashion that it would find customers among our NATO partners which so far it has been singularly unable to find?
I do not think that we could justify further development for export potential, because the export potential is extremely limited and the aircraft and its associated electronics will be very expensive anyway. It was made clear to me last week that NATO had taken the view that, if there were to be a NATO plane, it would be the AWACS plane which has command and other capabilities which we shall not have in Nimrod. It is extremely unlikely that if we were to spend a lot of money on trying to upgrade the performance of Nimrod, it could be recouped.
Was the Secretary of State surprised by the enthusiasm of some of his hon. Friends for this massive expenditure on an advanced weapon of war which will be deployed against the Russians and their Marxist allies on our northern borders? Is the commitment to Nimrod irrevocable even in the event that the NATO Ministers at their next meeting decide in favour of the Boeing solution?
I made it clear that we had to decide by today whether to proceed with the development of Nimrod which, as I have said, is costly. Clearly, the funds that we are now making available for this project mean that we shall not have funds to make a comparable contribution to another scheme. It is possible to have a mixed basis. It is on that footing that I shall approach the matter in future NATO meetings.
Before the House gets too overcome by euphoria, will the Secretary of State tell us what effect he thinks this project will have on the British Government's oft-repeated view that the future of NATO depends on standardisation? Secondly, how much help will it give to the salesmen of British weapons under the two-way street arrangement?
As I have made clear, despite many pressures to the contrary the Government have sought over two years to go along with a collective scheme which would have meant the sacrifice of jobs and of our own national interests. As long ago as June last year the Alliance was put on notice of our particular problems. Our position is well understood. Clearly, in a purely defence context, it would be better to have one airborne early warning system operating than two. My particular concern throughout has been that the Shackleton will not be effective very much longer and that, unless NATO made up its mind, there would be no system. I think that we are adding to rather than reducing NATO's capability by the decision that we have taken today.
Over many years I have learned to take with a pinch of salt, in the first look at the costs involved, some of the claims regarding what can be done. The hon. Lady may remember that in its first days I had some contact with the Concorde programme. For example, I was reprimanded for putting forward a figure which it was said was too high then but which, in the event, proved to be a fraction of its total cost. One must be careful about these matters. Clearly the message from NATO is that, whatever we do about Nimrod, it will not just drop AWACS and buy Nimrod. This is obviously an option about which we need to be rather cautious.
No, Sir. There is no question of replacing any of the Nimrods on the fishery protection rôle. We are in course of converting from Nimrod I to Nimrod II. Some aircraft—I think eight in Malta and two or three others—which will not be required for the new Mark II will be available for that purpose. Until we begin contractual discussions with the companies, we cannot give definite dates. In addition, there has been this delay while we have been waiting for a NATO decision. I shall give the dates as soon as possible. However, we must first discuss this matter with the companies. I thought it would be wrong to do that until I had informed the House of the decision.
Order. I shall call the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles), but I want both him and the House to know that I am breaking an unwritten rule that I have made for myself that, once having declared that I shall call those who have already caught my eye, it is implied that I shall not call those who have not caught my eye.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am glad that your surveillance is so effective.
Will the Secretary of State, having taken this admirable decision implying the importance of effective surveillance for the prevention of war, follow that logic by reconsidering, without giving an answer today, the whole question of the deployment of these aircraft in the Mediterranean?