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Aircraft Procurement (Europe)

Volume 894: debated on Tuesday 24 June 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if, in view of recent purchases of American military aircraft by some European NATO countries, he will now initiate a meeting between NATO members within the EEC to discuss the establishment of a policy for production of aircraft within the EEC member countries, for miliary and economic reasons.

The European member nations of NATO will be considering the implication for European defence industries of the recent decisions by four of them to acquire the American F16 aircraft. They will doubtless hold joint consultations, but the precise form and scope of these remains to be considered.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the French tactics in the recent battle for this order tend to show that no single European nation seems able to meet and beat the ruthless competition of the American aircraft manufacturers? If he accepts that, and if he accepts the overriding economic and military importance of a powerful and successful aviation industry, will he now take steps to launch such an initiative as is described in the Question?

First, if the House wants to draw a lesson from the recent exercise, European countries with airframe and aero-engine industries must cooperate, otherwise in future we must buy cheaply off the American shelf. The result will be that the European aircraft industries will gradually wane and will not be able to survive.

Secondly, I am keen to move towards the next stage of the two-way street of moving more defence equipment between American and Europe. To do so satisfactorily, however, the European industrial armaments industry must be prepared to co-operate so as to get more defence equipment from Europe on to the American street.

Will my right hon. Friend explain to me the paradox between the so-called claim of the Common Market that by combining together we should be able to compete with the super-Powers—namely, America and Russia—although here is an example, only days after the referendum result, in which, after 18 years of co-operation, even France and Belgium cannot agree whether this competition should take place or whether they should buy their arms, as was the case with Belgium, from America?

If my hon. Friend were more conversant with the Treaty of Rome he would know that it excludes the consideration of defence problems.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the decision of the Belgian Government concerning the replacement did not appear to correspond with any laid-down operational requirement? The French aircraft appeared to be an interceptor while the American was an inadequate ground attack aircraft. What efforts were made by British industry, or by the Minister's Department, to put forward the advantages of the Jaguar, which exists, or the MRCA, which, though more expensive, would exist on the same time scale as the American aircraft?

I personally placed the Jaguar aircraft concept before the Eurogroup on two occasions, and the concept of the two-rôle requirement for the F104 replacement came out of the Eurogroup. As the right hon. Gentleman must know, the four NATO nations were looking for an aircraft that would satisfy the two rôles, ground attack and high intercept. The Jaguar will satisfy the former but not the latter. Therefore, the four nations decided that the F16 was better placed to satisfy those two rôles than was the Jaguar or, indeed, the Mirage Fl. The MRCA has a longer time scale of decision, and it would be far too late for the four nations to take a decision. I hope in the next generation, when we have the three-nation trilateral co-operative effort in Europe—Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom—to be able to bring about more standardisation in our aircraft for the NATO Alliance.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the French would do better for themselves if they were full members of the Eurogroup, as they are fully entitled to be?

As I have indicated, the concept grew out of the Eurogroup. France is entitled to sit as a member of the Eurogroup. I am sorry that there is a vacant chair to be filled. If the French feel that they can play a part in helping us within NATO and the Eurogroup to cope with our common defence requirements, there is a part they can play inside the Eurogroup.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is more important to preserve and improve Europe's aerospace manufacturing capability than to waste time on announcements of the costly nationalisation of British industry? Will he get his priorities right?

The hon. Gentleman, who as usual is jumping in without having done his homework, must fully realise that even before we came to office there was a proposal on the board for the merger of Hawker Siddeley and BAC. We are only taking the logical step to streamline our industry and make it more competitive, if necessary within Europe, but certainly against the United States.