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European Fighter Aircraft

Volume 210: debated on Tuesday 30 June 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the European fighter aircraft project.

As the House will be aware, the German Defence Minister has indicated his belief that Germany should not participate in the production phase of the programme. With my Italian and Spanish colleagues, we have made clear to him our view that the EFA continues to represent the most cost-effective solution to the requirement.

While I recognise that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Prime Minister, supported by the Opposition, have rightly done all that they can to persuade the Germans to stay on board, may I put it to the Secretary of State that even without the German order for more than 100 aeroplanes it is decisively in the national interest that the project should go ahead? Is it not the case that by the end of the century we shall require a new fighter aeroplane at least as good as any modified MiG 29, and that to buy an American alternative would not only cost the taxpayer more in the long run but lead to the loss of thousands of jobs and the elimination of Britain's capability in an important area of advanced technology?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute not only to the Opposition parties but to my hon. Friends who have demonstrated convincingly the virtually unanimous view of the House that the European fighter aircraft is consistent with the defence interests of the United Kingdom. We believe that it is also in the interests of Germany. Indeed, many within Germany take that view. What one finds most difficult to understand about the German position is that the Germans acknowledge that they will need a new fighter aircraft, they are not aware what their alternative to the EFA would be and, in the absence of any conclusion to that effect, it is difficult to understand how they can believe that whatever option they ultimately chose would necessarily bring any saving. With the Select Committee, we believe that EFA represents the best value for money and is absolutely consistent with our defence requirements.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the view of the German Defence Minister that it is possible to produce a simpler aircraft more cheaply using research money from the EFA project is not viable? Does he agree that we would end up with an inferior aircraft that would cost us more?

I regret to say that my hon. Friend is almost certainly correct. It seems certain that if Herr Riihe's proposal for a lighter EFA were taken forward it would result in the waste of the billions of pounds that have so far been spent on the development stage of the project. It would also probably result in up to five years' delay before the aircraft could be made available. That would not be consistent with our defence requirements.

While I in no sense devalue the military and economic arguments in favour of the European fighter aircraft progamme, does the Secretary of State agree that the political implications of a German withdrawal are equally significant? At a time when necessary and inevitable efforts are being made to strengthen the European defence pillar, would not a German withdrawal from the EFA programme prejudice those efforts?

It is difficult to understand the German position. Germany has been a good European partner over the years. It is not consistent with that reputation to consider withdrawing from the most important example of European defence collaboration that exists.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that we all agree with his conclusion that the EFA is important to our future defence interests. He will also be aware of the deep anxiety which many of us feel that our ground forces have already been pared to the bone. Can he give an assurance that, whatever happens to the EFA and whatever additional cost it might involve to Her Majesty's Government, no further cuts will he made in our ground force capability?

I would hope that, whatever the ultimate German decision on the EFA, the economies that have been identified in recent weeks will still be available to us. I hope that the rationalisation of industrial production which could follow any German decision to withdraw will not have cost implications. I assure my hon. Friend that our ground forces are an important priority to me.

Can the Minister give us a guarantee that a contingency plan will be drawn up in the event of the Germans withdrawing from the EFA? As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said, there could be job losses in the area that we represent and it is important for the next generation of technology that we go ahead with the project. May we have a guarantee from the Minister that we shall go ahead with it?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He will appreciate that, in the event of such a German announcement, the first requirement would be for me to have discussions with my Spanish and Italian colleagues and to ensure, we hope, that they also wish the project to continue. That would be the first priority, and I hope that we would have a common purpose to continue with the project and bring it to a successful conclusion.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, while the Tornado did great service in the Gulf, it is not a combat aircraft and it was never engaged in combat during that conflict? Does he further agree that all the expert advice that he receives from the Royal Air Force suggests that we must have a fighter to replace Tornado at the earliest possible time?

It is indeed the case that the Tornado is unlikely to have the capacity of the most modern Russian aircraft. As my hon. Friend will be aware, it is intended that when the EFA comes into operation it will have both an air defence and a ground attack role and will therefore be able to meet our defence requirements well into the next century.

The Secretary of State knows that the House is united in support of the programme. Will he guarantee that, in the event of a German withdrawal, we shall have the opportunity to debate the issue, and that the House will get the most up-to-date reports of the intentions of the Italians and Spaniards? We hope that they will continue with the programme. Above all else, as well as national defence, our interests in the House are in the defence of the 40,000 workers whose jobs could well depend on the project during the next 25 years. It is essential that a dialogue continues across the House and with our allies to ensure that the programme carries on, even if it is in a modified form.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that debates in the House are not a matter for me. I appreciate the important contribution that he and his hon. Friends have made in supporting the Government's representations to the German Government. I certainly hope to keep him and the House informed of progress on the matter as and when it takes place.

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend needs no reminding that the allied air forces' air superiority in the Gulf war—their ability to keep the Iraqi air forces on the ground and to neutralise Saddam Hussein's ground formations—saved many thousands of lives. The EFA will be an air superiority aeroplane, able to intercept and to offer effective offensive support to our troops, and as such it will be essential to the Royal Air Force for the next 20 to 25 years. Can my right hon. and learned Friend guarantee that, whatever the circumstances, the Government will procure it?

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of that aircraft. The Select Committee on Defence made a valuable contribution when it concluded unanimously that there was no alternative aircraft in the world which could meet the Royal Air Force's defence requirements and do so in such a cost-efficient manner. It would be my desire that the project should continue, irrespective of the German decision, but, clearly, if the Germans decide to withdraw, the first obligation will be to discuss the implications with the allies taking part in the project and to come to a decision in the light of those discussions.