ALARM System

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:43 pm on 13th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Pattie Mr Geoffrey Pattie , Chertsey and Walton 11:43 pm, 13th July 1983

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) for raising this subject. It must be some time since we have had such an excellent attendance at an Adjournment debate, which shows the concern in many parts of the House, particularly, though not entirely, on Government Benches, for the future of the project.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said yesterday in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble, South (Mr. Atkins), the decision on which weapon to purchase to meet the Royal Air Force's defence suppression requirement is expected in the near future. I can only add that one hopes that it will indeed be the near future.

I shall respond to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren). I assure him that what I would call the full cost assessment, looking at what the real costs are, is the basis that we shall use. I have noted the other points that he made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble, South asked me to confirm or deny certain points. It goes without saying that the technology for ALARM would be developed and based here, so no transfer of technology would be relevant, whereas that is not so for HARM, as is well known. It is also true that approximately half the contract price for HARM would be on foreign military service sales terms. They are decided by the United States Government when the purchase is made. There is, therefore, some doubt even at this stage.

I have noted the points about what Tornado should or can carry. I do not want to go into too much detail, but the difference is largely to do with the operational mode. If there is a designated aircraft — I think that that is somewhat risky in wartime—HARM does rather better. If it is decided to carry an anti-radiation missile with others in a mix on several aeroplanes ALARM is favoured. People disagree about whether the designated concept is a good idea. Those who have been involved in wars have a habit of telling us that the designated platform tends to be the one that goes "u/s" on the day and one is left managing without it.

I should like to give the House two assurances. First, I and my right hon. Friends are extremely well aware of the issues that have been raised tonight. They have been taken into account in our assessment of the balance that we must strike between the competing claims of the British Aerospace ALARM and the American-developed HARM which has been offered to us either on co-production between Texas Instruments in the United States and Lucas Aerospace in Britain and known as "British HARM" or directly from the United States Government. I stress that the arguments for each are clear to us. I cannot recall a defence procurement decision for some months that has attracted so much interest.

The considerations that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West highlighted in his excellent speech are foremost among those that we are taking into account. It would be foolish to pretend that both weapons do not have good points. If it were an open and shut case in one direction we should not be having this debate. We must find ways in which to give proper weight to a range of factors, including the following: the various operational and technical characteristics of each weapon and their capabilities against the threat posed by Warsaw pact air defence units in the later years of this decade and in the 1990s when the threat can be expected to be intensified; the maintenance of job creation in British industry—a feature of the ALARM and the "British HARM" bids which has rightly figured prominently in my hon. Friend's case; and the several dimensions to the cost — total programme costs, the unit costs of production weapons, whether costs are fixed in contract or liable to change and, perhaps most important of all, cost effectiveness. We are given to understand that British industry will have the opportunity to bid for places in the HARM programme, although that is not the same as getting them. Nevertheless, the export market appears to be significant.

Much as I might like to enter a detailed comparison of the various factors, that would not be appropriate now. Some details, such as cost figures or relative in-service dates, even though some information has been made available by the competing firms, must remain matters of commercial confidence for the Government. In other areas, such as export potential, British technological and industrial interests and operational effectiveness against the threat, the Government are in the final stages of forming their own conclusions on the relative merits of each proposal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West mentioned the guided weapon expertise of British Aerospace. Its achievement in developing and producing guided missiles was amply demonstrated by the successful use during the Falklands crisis of the Sea Skua helicopter-launched anti-ship missile. We also have high hopes for Sea Eagle, the air launched anti-ship missile that is currently being developed by British Aerospace. I pay credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) who has espoused the cause of the British Aerospace dynamics group so effectively for so long.

Hon. Members may wonder why I am mentioning the Sting Ray torpedo in the context of the debate, but what is at issue is the continued technological competence of a vital part of British industry. We have to have regard the good performance in the Falklands by Sting Ray, which was rapidly deployed down there. In the event, it was not used, but it was a project that attracted unfavourable attention because of its inadequate performance in its early years. Since it has been taken over and taken in hand by industry, I am glad to be able to tell the House, and also the Public Accounts Committee if it is listening, that its costs have not increased in real terms since 1978–79, and there are not many projects about which one can say that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West spoke about the future of Lostock near Bolton and the value of the technologies in ALARM for future missile systems and concepts, not least the technology contributed by Marconi Space and Defence Systems in homing heads. The work at Lostock would be in assembling the production missiles and would, as my hon. Friend will agree, come later in the decade. Before that, in the development stage, there would be significant employment at British Aerospace dynamics group factories at Hatfield, Stevenage and Bracknell. With the current economic circumstances and high unemployment, we are well aware—I once again assure my hon. Friends of this — of the implications of the ALARM programme for British Aerospace and for Lostock, and for employment throughout the country, as well over 100 subcontractors would benefit. This is an important point that needs to he born in mind because usually only the leading companies catch the headlines and are the people about whom we hear. However, there are still 100 other companies involved in this programme.

In regard to future weapon systems, I believe that my hon. Friend would have in mind both the scope for other missile programmes than ALARM for British Aerospace, and the other firms involved, in coming years, and the opportunities that could now be opening up for new missiles fitted with anti-radiation homing heads—or the application of this technology to existing designs. Certainly there are such opportunities.

Seeker technology is the key to many advanced weapon systems and the maintenance and enhancement of our competitive position in this is an important issue that is at the forefront of our considerations. Seekers for anti-radiation missiles are doubly important. These must measure and classify signals from enemy radars, which may be changed quickly and perhaps subtly in some circumstances to outwit the missiles and, of course, decoys may also be used. We must have the capability to react very quickly to such changes and this is best assured when we have the detailed knowledge of the seeker that comes from designing and building it ourselves. Indeed, it is true in electronic warfare as a whole, where it can be said that we own only half the system and the enemy owns the other half. This is a lesson that our experience in the Falklands reinforced and that we must not forget.

There are also wider possibilities, some of them collaborative, in the homing head activities generally, which include active radar and infra-red as well as anti-radiation techniques. Potential applications are by no means confined to air-launched weapons. The possibilities also embrace land-based and ship-launched weapon systems. Some of these are much longer term, but we attach high importance to them, as the essay "New Technology, New Tactics" in last week's defence White Paper shows.

I hope that I have said enough to demonstrate lo my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West and to the significant number of other hon. Members on both sides of the House who are present and who have been concerned enough to stay after the excitement earlier this evening, that the claims of ALARM to be selected for the new defence suppression weapon requirement are appreciated fully and are being taken into account in detail by us. Certainly the Government need to have regard to a whole range of factors in addition to the traditional ones of cost and delivery timescale.

I warned my hon. Friend before the debate that I should not be able to surprise him this evening, but I hope, as he does, that the decision will not now be long delayed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve o' clock.