Combat Air Strategy — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney 1:30 pm, 27th June 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Combat Air Strategy progress and next steps.

It is an honour and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

As we consider what aircraft will replace the Typhoon, it is appropriate for us to remember those who operate that aircraft now. I am particularly mindful that only a couple of days ago we heard the tragic news about the loss of two German Eurofighters and a pilot in a crash. The German air force remains a key ally, as it was during the cold war, and it is one of the best equipped in the world. Germany is one of our closest friends, as well as being a key NATO ally. I am sure that we are all mindful of the loss of that German pilot. We cannot know the reason for the crash at this stage, and we ought not to speculate, but it may be that we touch on issues such as training or serviceability as part of the debate. Whatever the reasons, it is a sad moment for all friends of Germany and of aviators. I would like us to remember them all at this time.

It is good to see so many Members here as we consider the combat air strategy, particularly given that so many were also present in November 2017 when Ruth Smeeth and I sponsored the original debate calling for a combat air strategy—in fact, it was for a defence aerospace-industrial strategy; I will refer to that terminology, which is not just semantics, in a moment or two. Progress has certainly been made: the combat air strategy was published in July 2018, while Team Tempest—including the Royal Air Force, the Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo UK and MBDA UK—and the mock-up of the Tempest aircraft were unveiled at the Royal International Air Tattoo last year.

However, there is much more to do. It is appropriate for us all to take stock at this stage, not least because other competitors in the field are forging ahead. This is the right moment to have this debate, given that only last week at the Paris air show the Franco-German team unveiled what has been referred to as their “squashed Raptor” design; anyone who does not know what I mean should take a picture of the F-22 Raptor and then look the Franco-German model, then they will see it exactly. The Turkish fighter concept was unveiled at the same time. In some ways, they are a year or so behind Team Tempest’s efforts, but in some ways they are more developed. They seem to have dates for first flight outlined, which I think I am correct in saying we do not yet have. In any event, there is clearly no room for complacency.

I make one perhaps basic point, although it is not the most important: perhaps we could just call the aircraft that we are discussing “Tempest”. The name has historic resonance—the Hawker Tempest replaced the Hawker Typhoon, as this Tempest should replace our Typhoon. It also provides a logical progression, from Tornado to Typhoon to Tempest. I appreciate that this is not the most important point that we will discuss, but it might make it easier for everyone if we do not have to wrestle with baffling military acronyms or phrases such as “combat air” or “FCAS”—future combat air system. I would rather that we did not have a minor international incident, as with Typhoon, by debating at the end of the programme what the aircraft will be called. In any event, I suggest that we call this aircraft Tempest, and I will refer to it as Tempest today.

Before we get into the details, we should look at why it is so important that we have a combat air strategy. Defence aerospace has accounted for about 87% of defence exports over the last 10 years, and the UK combat air sector has an approximate annual turnover of more than £6 billion. The F-35 programme directly employs around 2,200 people, with Hawk at 1,500 and Typhoon around 5,000. Hawk is estimated—through the 1,000 or so aircraft built or on order—to bring in £15.8 billion over its lifetime to the UK Government, for an outlay of around £900 million. Typhoon will have brought in £28.2 billion, against an outlay of £15.2 billion, showing a clear economic benefit, entirely leaving aside the geopolitical desirability of British sovereign capability. Those figures are before we consider the recent Qatar deal or any future sales over which discussions are ongoing.

However, the issue is not all about money: it is also about finding a way to develop, sponsor and bring on the technology that then has a spin-off in other areas of everyday life, as it has throughout history; the combat air strategy rightly points out that the software used in the Tornado, the Typhoon and the C-130J now provides the rail timetabling system for the London Underground. However, the battle that we often seem to fight in the House is over funding for these projects, in the face of the short-sighted argument that military equipment is simply a financial drain. Of course it costs money, but it brings in money, as well as maintaining vital national independence.