Royal Air Force

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 29th October 2001.

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Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble 2:30 pm, 29th October 2001

If he will make a statement on defence policy priorities for the UK air force; and how they have changed since the strategic defence review was published in 1998.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The measures affecting the Royal Air Force that emerged from the strategic defence review are being implemented. Lessons learned from the Kosovo campaign about precision attack and communications have been, and are being, put into practice through the procurement of Maverick missiles, precision-guided bombs and secure air-to-air communications equipment.

I announced in January that we had concluded that the joint strike fighter represented the best option to meet our needs for a future joint combat aircraft. On Friday, it was announced that Lockheed Martin had been selected as the prime contractor. That is good news for our armed forces, including the Royal Air Force, and good news for British industry.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

I welcome the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. Many thousands of BAE workers at Samlesbury and Warton, who will be involved with the joint strike fighter in future years, are really pleased about the announcement made on Friday. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State give the House details of the number of jobs that will be created or sustained either locally in Lancashire or more widely in the north-west of England?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The decision to proceed with Lockheed Martin could secure as much as £3 billion for the United Kingdom's economy in the engineering and manufacturing development phase, but a further £24 billion is in prospect for the downstream production activities. On the employment front, it is likely that the EMD phase will sustain or create some 3,500 jobs in high-technology areas such my hon. Friend's. When the production and support phases begin in a few years' time, that could rise to at least 8,500 jobs. Overseas sales of the aircraft will provide additional industrial opportunities when the time comes.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

The Secretary of State will recall that an overflight ban on commercial aircraft was imposed over London after the events of 11 September. That ban has now been lifted. Will the right hon. Gentleman use this opportunity to explain precisely what role the Royal Air Force now has in the protection of London—and, indeed, the House, perhaps between 3 pm and 3.30 pm on Wednesdays—and exactly how aircraft could be shot down over London without causing considerable damage to Greater London?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I can assure hon. Members that the RAF remains on 24-hour standby to deal with any airborne threat to the United Kingdom, but I am sure that the House will understand why it would not be entirely sensible for me go into any more specific detail about that.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

Can the Secretary of State confirm that, since the strategic defence review, there has been a very welcome increase in the number of ethnic minority recruits to the RAF? In that context, would this country's media not do well to give more prominence to that fact than to the rantings of the lunatics of al-Muhajiroun and what they are saying today?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I certainly believe that the armed forces have achieved some considerable success in recruiting from ethnic minorities right across the board. Yesterday, I saw figures for Army recruitment in the latest quarter, and they are excellent, but our armed forces recognise that they still have a good way to go to ensure that they are fully representative of the community that they serve so well.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Liberal Democrat, Hereford

On Friday's welcome announcement about the joint strike fighter—or F35, as we must now call her—does the Secretary of State agree that it is not only good news for the defence industry but provides at least one settled design for a possible aircraft for the future aircraft carrier? Does he also agree that operations in the Arabian sea demonstrate once again the flexibility of carrier operations? Can he confirm that, when the joint strike fighter comes into operation in the RAF, it will have a full suite of weapons, including Meteor?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

Obviously, I agree with all the various points that the hon. Gentleman made about the opportunities that the joint strike fighter will provide for British industry and, indeed, the RAF, giving it a state-of-the-art piece of equipment, which will serve this country well for a very long time to come. On specific weapons, I do not think it right to anticipate the next phase of design, which is under way, but certainly the designers will look hard at the ways in which Meteor could be incorporated in that aircraft.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Following the announcement and the north-west's success with the joint strike fighter aircraft, will my right hon. Friend consider the position of the A400M, over which there is a question mark following the Italians possibly buying the Boeing C130?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I assure my hon. Friend that there is no question mark over the A400M—certainly not as a result of any difficulties in Italy. Those who have already committed themselves to the A400M are more than sufficient to meet the expectations of the manufacturers and, indeed, the current price, so I do not envisage any decision in Italy affecting that. Obviously, we are concerned about the fact that there is a continuing question mark over Italy's participation, but I understand that Italy has yet to make a decision.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Does the Secretary of State agree that if it is to be a long haul in Afghanistan, as the Prime Minister predicts, the provision of transport planes is one of the most important things that we can do for the RAF? We welcome the answer that he gave his hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle but will he tell the House, without equivocation, whether a construction contract will be signed for the A400M before Christmas?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. We are pleased to see him where he is and hope that he stays there for a very long time.

On the point about transport aircraft, Exercise Saif Sareea demonstrated the enormous importance of strategic heavy lift to the armed forces. The range of aircraft now available to the armed forces means that we are beginning to find a comprehensive solution to the problem which other countries need to address as well. That is why we and other countries are enthusiastic supporters of the A400M. However, it would not be sensible for me to give specific indications as to when a contract will be signed. Nevertheless, I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is an absolute determination among those who have committed to A400M to sign as soon as possible.