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Air Defences

Volume 958: debated on Tuesday 21 November 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he is satisfied with the state of Great Britain's air defences.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force
(Mr. James Wellbeloved)

The air defence forces of the RAF are well-equipped and manned by skilled and dedicated professionals. I am satisfied that these forces represent a strong deterrent to any potential hostile intruder in United Kingdom air space, and that they are capable of playing their full part in the NATO air defence system. We are, of course, always seeking to improve these forces to match the continually evolving threat which they face.

But what are the Government doing to remedy the serious lack of United Kingdom-based fighters, what percentage of the new Tornados will be based in the United Kingdom, and when will all the planes based in the United Kingdom be in service?

The Government are busy trying to restore the air defence capacity of this country, a capacity that was dismantled and discarded by the Conservative Government. There are now more aircraft defending the skies and the integrity of this country than when the Conservatives left office. The aircraft primarily in the air defence role are Phantoms ordered by a Labour Government, which are two to three times more effective than the Lightnings which the Conservatives left us to defend the country. Furthermore, we are increasing the number of Bloodhounds and Rapier ground-to-air missiles. I know that many Conservative Members do not like the facts. They would rather dwell in their own fantasy world, but the fact is that the Labour Government are restoring the air defence capability in this country. As a result the right hon. Gentleman, his hon. Friends and the people of this country can sleep a little more soundly in their beds than was the case when the Tories left office.

Is it true that the Royal Air Force is apparently 250 pilots short? If so, where is the shortage? Is it in line aircraft?

It is true that we suffer deficits, particularly in junior officer pilots. The Royal Air Force board has decided to take certain steps to remedy this situation. I hope that we shall resume fairly rapidly our full complement.

For how long could this country survive conventional air attacks—for five days, or less?

I appreciate the assurances given by the Minister about the state of our defences, but does he not agree that the "Deep Throat" episode and the fact that the Tories jumped on the bandwagon of the original story have done a great disservice to our national security and to the RAF?

I think that it is always a matter for regret when Members of Parliament, or anybody else, seek to put numbers to the strength of our Air Force when the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) well knows that the numbers of fighters and bombers remain classified information.

The Opposition do not take the Minister very seriously, but he should not trade too much on that matter. He must know that his original answer was absurd. Is it not the case that the air threat to this country has risen immeasurably in he past four years and that we are therefore very much less ready to meet it?

The fact that we have a growing threat to this country was very well known when the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Defence. It is a matter for regret that he did not take these necessary measures, and a matter for even greater regret that, now that the Labour Government are restoring our air defence capacity, he has not the grace to recognise that fact.

If the air threat to this country was so well known in 1973–1974, how does the hon. Gentleman explain the then defence review, which cut our air defences?

Primarily the reduction in terms of the Royal Air Force was in its transport capacity as a direct result of our withdrawal from the Far East. The defence review and the measures that followed give a complete answer to the right hon. Gentleman's distortions. The air defence capacity of this country is better today than the capacity we inherited when the right hon. Gentleman left office.