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European Fighter Aircraft

Volume 78: debated on Tuesday 30 April 1985

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1.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what recent discussions he has had with European aerospace manufacturers about the proposed new European fighter aircraft.

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what recent discussions he has had concerning the European fighter aircraft.

In addition to regular and continuing discussions with British industry, I visited British Aerospace at Warton on 20 March and Dassault, in France, on 2 April. The visits enabled me to see for myself the experimental aircraft programmes on which the companies are engaged. They also provided an opportunity to discuss the work undertaken on the proposed European fighter aircraft. While in France I had a brief meeting with Mr. Hernu. Consultation, national and international, is also taking place regularly and frequently at official level in preparation for the meeting of EFA Defence Ministers, which I shall attend in Rome in mid-May.

Does that mean that the manufacturers in France and British Aerospace are moving closer together regarding the EFA? Will the Secretary of State give us some genuine information about that?

The hon. Gentleman asks a critical question. It is extremely difficult to answer in general terms questions about many different ranges of manufacturing interests. There is no doubt that much more intense discussion is going on at industrial level, especially among the prime contractors, to find a solution to this interesting opportunity.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Royal Air Force cannot fly reviews or visits, but wants real aircraft? Is he further aware that in 1939 we had "Spits" and Hurricanes? We may not have had enough, but we had them. Does he realise that if he proceeds in this way we shall be short of fighter aircraft at the appropriate time?

That is not the message that I got when we visited British Aerospace. British Aerospace understands the complexities of funding the development of tomorrow's aircraft, and has played a critical role in advising about the options before me.

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he is bearing prominently in mind the serious employment implications of having an early and positive decision about this project, and that it would be a great pity if the skilled teams at present at Warton were dispersed?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. There are critical military, industrial and employment issues involved, and we have these in mind.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to say what discussions he has had with European aerospace manufacturers about collaborative projects for helicopters to meet defence needs? Does he agree that although it is true to say that the British helicopter industry will depend on successful European collaboration——

I seek to discover what discussions the Secretary of State has had with European aerospace manufacturers in general.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his brave try. Obviously, I have discussions on the full procurement area, and Europe is trying increasingly to seek solutions of common specification and procurement opportunity. That includes helicopters, and all the other military equipment that we must purchase.

Knowing as he does the imperative of reaching a decision next month when he has his meeting, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government's top priority is to produce an air frame and an engine capable of meeting the threat, and that he will not compromise on a lesser solution simply to induce the French to join a project with ourselves, the Italians and the Germans?

Of course, my hon. Friend is correct. We must begin with the threat that we face, but the House will appreciate that all the potential partners to EFA broadly agree about the threat.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to confirm that the role of the aircraft for which he is pressing is the role of the RAF one, that the configuration of the aircraft is the configuration of the RAF one, which is what meets the needs of British industry, and that he is determined to go ahead with the needs of the RAF, and of no one else, as his prime consideration? Will he also take this opportunity to confirm that while we intend to maintain an independent British aircraft manufacturing industry, we intend to do the same for the helicopter industry?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that all those issues are carefully borne in mind, as are the conflicting claims upon the resources of the Ministry of Defence budget from other air force requirements and the requirements of other armed services. A wide range of factors must be taken into account, and the interests of the British aerospace industry will be at the forefront of one's thinking.