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Air Defences

Volume 122: debated on Tuesday 10 November 1987

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To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to strengthen United Kingdom air defences.

A major modernisation of the United Kingdom's air defences is now well advanced, including the build-up of the Tornado ADV force, the commissioning of improved United Kingdom air defence ground environment systems, and the purchase of Boeing E-3 airborne early warning aircraft.

I am pleased to announce that an order for a seventh E-3 aircraft has now been placed with the Boeing aircraft company. This will provide a significant enhancement over the six-aircraft fleet ordered earlier this year and a robust capability to mount continuous airborne early warning patrols. The cost of this aircraft will be accommodated within the provision for the defence budget announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 3 November.

Has the Secretary of State seen recent press reports and the "World in Action" programme describing the appalling state of our air defences? Does he agree that that is the real cost of Trident?

In the first place, the state of our air defences is not only very good, but considerably better than it has been for many years. Secondly, the Trident programme has been in our costings for a very long time and that is coining down in cost, not increasing. Neither part of the hon. Lady's question holds any water.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the Government came into office in 1979 we found to our horror that no provision had been made in the finances for the air defence part of the Tornado programme or for making the Hawk aircraft capable for local defence, and we inherited the Nimrod project?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The current dramatic improvement in the RAF's capability has been achieved although no funding had been laid ahead when we came into office in 1979. That position has been put right by the Government.

Following the tragic deaths of two pilots in my constituency just over a week ago, is the Secretary of State prepared to consider a major review of the low-flying programme, as its contribution to the effectiveness of our air defences must be reduced by the enormous loss of life and expensive equipment that has been sustained?

We believe that any loss of life is too much; the loss of even one pilot a year is one too many. We try to keep those distressing accidents to an absolute minimum. However, this year's accidents, however tragic, are no worse in number than last year's accident figures, which were the best for a very long time. We keep the position carefully under review and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not take any of those events lightly.

All Conservative Members will endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend about the skill and determination of the Royal Air Force. What progress has been made in sorting out the electronic difficulties relating to the Tornado—the Foxhunter system?

My hon. Friend is right to state that there were some difficulties about that. After prolonged negotiations with the company we have agreed a way to go ahead with the Foxhunter radar, which I am convinced will produce an effective instrument for the aircraft when it comes into service.

In view of the recent news that the Americans are to cancel their order for the Harrier aircraft — that will obviously increase the unit costs of the production of the Harrier — and in view of the substantial cuts in that part of the Government's Estimates, how will that affect our purchases of the Harrier and our air defences in the near future?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. The Harrier AV8B, which is the American version, is an important Anglo-US collaborative project. The RAF is firmly committed to its side of it, the Harrier GR5, which will enter service next year.

During my recent visit to Washington I made it clear that it would be a serious blow to Anglo-US collaboration if the United States cut orders. I was assured, however, that no decision to do so had yet been made, and I understand that that is still the position.