I am proud to represent a city which has long associations with the RAF. I am certain that the sight of Lincoln cathedral on the return home after long bombing raids over the Continent warmed the hearts of many of the men in Bomber Command during the last war. We in Lincoln are still proud of our RAF connections. Many RAF families live in the city, and Waddington, from which Vulcan bombers have operated so successfully and for so long, and which will soon be the home of the modern Nimrods, is on the edge of the city.
I start by paying tribute to the RAF for the way that it contributes to local communities. The men and women of the RAF are excellent citizens. They try to make contact with the local population and they open their bases to schools and citizens generally.
The RAF families in our villages and in the city contribute to community life in a variety of ways. The RAF provides much-needed employment, and many families stay in the vicinity after leaving the RAF and use the skills learnt during their service for the continuing benefit of the locality. For example, a man who has just left the RAF, and is skilled in electronics, is setting up a school in Lincoln to train youngsters in information technology. That is an excellent use of the skills that he learnt in many years of excellent training and service in the RAF.
Any community that has an RAF presence is lucky, and that is certainly true of Lincoln and Lincolnshire. I pay tribute to the community spirit of the RAF.
Of course, a local presence is only a by-product of the essential role of the RAF, which is the defence of the realm and of our interests, wherever they are threatened. Recent events have proved conclusively the crucial nature of control of the air in any operation.
There are three specific areas that I should like the Government to consider. First, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary stressed earlier, we must retain our technical lead in the quality of our equipment. We live in a world of high technology and our excellence is crucial if we are to deter the much larger number of aircraft deployed against us by the Warsaw Pact. NATO has only 1,250 fixed-wing tactical aircraft, but the Warsaw Pact has 2,700—more than twice as many. Only excellence can narrow that gap, just as the excellence of the Harrier jump jet helped to restore some of the balance in the South Atlantic against a numerically superior Argentine air force.
I understand that in the 1950s and 1960s we were in danger of losing that excellence by concentrating on the belief that the nuclear deterrent was all-important. We allowed our conventional forces to suffer. We have rightly reverted to the idea of the flexible response, which demands the best conventional forces.
I am glad that we are engaged in the biggest re-equipment of the RAF since the war. In 1978, a total of £1,200 million was spent on RAF equipment, which was 16 per cent. of the total defence budget. This year, we shall spend £2,800 million, which is 20 per cent. of the total budget. That is a substantial increase, both in real terms and as a share of the defence budget. Progress is in the right direction, but we must make certain that the RAF does not relax its pursuit of excellence.
The second issue is our ability to improvise. The Falklands crisis showed the importance of our genius in this respect. The Vulcan bomber, which came from Waddington, improvised and got to Port Stanley to bomb the airport. Our refuelling techniques, to which we hastily added, enabled Harriers to fly to Ascension Island on the way to reinforce our ships and provide air cover in the South Atlantic. We improvised to convert merchant ships for use with the Navy. There are many other examples of how our ability to improvise helped our Forces.
Improvisation stretches the effectiveness of our Forces far beyond what most of us imagine they are capable of doing. Improvisation arises from the spur of crisis. The ability to improvise is an admirable British quality. Will the Government give greater consideration to other ways of improvisation? For example, Vulcans are now to be used as refuelling tankers. Perhaps civilian aircraft could be built with slight adaptations to enable them to be converted to a refuelling role in a crisis.
I am glad, for example, that our 72 Hawk trainers are to be modified to take the Sidewinder missile. In all these cases, a flexible approach can increase our strength out of all proportion to cost. I do not want to institutionalise improvisation, because that could snuff out the genius, but we should prepare for and think much more about it.
The third issue is training. This issue was raised more forcefully and eloquently than I could ever do by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). During the Falkland crisis many of us became acutely aware of the precious skills of our pilots. These human skills are among the scarcest of our resources in the Armed Forces. Have we sufficient trained manpower for a longer conflict? Are we satisfied that the training to give our Armed Forces that high degree of skill is adequate? I do not have the knowledge to judge, but it is a matter that we should examine vigorously.
I ask the Government to sustain and improve the excellence of our equipment. I urge them to nurture our ability to improvise. I hope that they will ensure that we have sufficient skilled men for a longer crisis than the Falkland operation.
I am glad to take part in this debate, not only because the RAF is close to the heart of the city of Lincoln, which I have the honour to represent, but because I believe that the Government recognise the crucial importance of the RAF.