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Fleet Air Arm

Volume 82: debated on Tuesday 2 July 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement concerning Fleet Air Arm manning.

Recruiting problems coupled with the duration of training have created shortages in some areas, but steps are being taken to overcome deficiencies.

How much time will front-line air and ground crews spend with their families under the Government's lunatic cost-cutting programme, which is resulting in each of our aircraft carriers not being fully equipped with their own aircraft and manpower—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not reading; he is referring to his notes.

I am not sure whether I should start again, Mr. Speaker.

Is the Minister aware that a similar scheme was tried about 20 years ago, which resulted in a sharp increase in voluntary resignations? What level of manpower wastage does he expect from this policy, and what will it mean in money terms?

We are operating a policy of having two carriers fully operational at any one time, and there will be two air groups. We believe that position to be satisfactory. Overall, we have about 40 Sea Harriers in service or on order.

But is it not the case that we have three aircraft carriers and two crews and are awaiting 23 aircraft to come on stream? Until that happens, there will be problems with the use of any back-up force and difficulties such as we saw during the Falklands war.

Will the Minister assure us that the problems that confront that section of the Fleet Air Arm will be alleviated quickly so that morale does not plummet further?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the air groups are needed only on operational carriers. In times of tension, training and reserve personnel and aircraft will be fully utilised.

If the hon. Gentleman looks back to the period of the last Labour Administration, he will see that during 1977–78 more than 50 per cent. of Fleet Air Arm pilots chose to leave mid-way through their trained service at their first opportunity, primarily on pay grounds.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Fleet Air Arm personnel are highly skilled and highly trained? Does it not take some years to build up those skills? Is it not an unfortunate experience to see the Opposition trying to leap on the bandwagon by claiming that the skills are not currently available?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It takes about four years to train a Sea Harrier pilot, at a cost of about £2·8 million. We are taking a number of measures to improve the position. Recruiting to the Fleet Air Arm has been increased substantially, training capacity expanded, wastage reduced and the methods of pilot training are being studied.