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Canberra Bomber

Volume 448: debated on Monday 26 June 2006

After the retirement from service of the Canberra PR9 at the end of next month, we will continue to provide military intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities through a combination of in-service systems and new equipment programmes such as ASTOR and Watchkeeper, which will incrementally deliver enhanced capability.

The analysts are all agreed that wet film—traditional film—provides a higher definition and resolution than any other service. What the Minister has described is a platform for providing digital surveillance, which is not good enough. We have known for a long time that Canberra is going out of service at the end of the month. What will provide a platform for the wet film cameras?

We propose to invest between £2 billion and £2.5 billion per annum over the next 10 years on our network-enabled capability. That will give us a range of stand-off surveillance systems, which will greatly enhance our capability. The hon. Gentleman says authoritatively that wet film is the only way forward, but that is not the analysis of those who are considering our new requirements for a network-enabled capability, which co-ordinates what is happening in the field and what we see from the sky and provides enhanced communication to people on the ground.

Is there any risk that the successor to the Canberra will not be end-on to the retirement date for Canberra, and that we shall therefore avoid a capability gap of the sort that some analysts have been predicting for some time?

We have a range of new systems coming on-stream, one of which is ASTOR, which is the overall capability, while the Raptor reconnaissance pod will be fitted to Tornados and is expected to be ready for operation before the end of this year. That will provide an enhanced capability and is a wet film concept upgraded to digital technology. I hear what my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) say, but our proposal is based on what we believe to be the appropriate technology for the decades ahead. It is a major investment based on the best analysis of what we need to meet our requirements in the field.

Will the Minister find time today to pay tribute to the last remaining Canberra PR9 squadron based at RAF Marham? Such squadrons are in many ways the unsung heroes of numerous conflicts over the past 40 years or so, flying in extremely tough conditions in all weathers.

I am only too happy to do so. The media has shown some good news footage about all that recently, pointing to the age of some of the crew who have been with that aircraft for a considerable number of years and provided work of incredibly high quality. I am sure that those who fly on the replacement reconnaissance aircraft, combined with the unmanned facility, will provide an equally high standard in the decades to come.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) in paying tribute to this singular aircraft, its contribution to the Royal Air Force and its capabilities over the past 55 years. No other aeroplane can hold a candle to the service that the Canberra has given. I understand that even Her Majesty the Queen had a small tear in her eye as she saw the last Canberra fly over Buckingham palace.

I have seen the Canberra in operation in Oman, where I spoke to the crew. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) says, there is no substitute for wet film. Given the Minister’s acceptance of the singular capability of the Canberra, its replacement with what he described as a combination of incremental improvements is no substitute for the Canberra. When will Project Dabinett, the Ministry of Defence’s study of the long-term replacement for that capability report? Are not our armed forces again being made to carry the operational risk of yet another capability gap because the Ministry of Defence makes it decisions not on military imperatives but to deliver more short-term savings to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who now struts around the country pretending to be the new friend of the armed forces?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wanted to ask a question or to make a political attack. I shall deal with the political attack first. Let us remember that we have seen the largest real-terms increase in defence expenditure for 20 years. That will procure, for land, sea and air, a substantial upgrade of all our equipment needs for decades ahead.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a specific project. I do not have any information to hand on when a report on it is likely, but I will write to him.

As for the idea that what we are doing is short-term and represents a cut, I have given the figure for the investment that we shall be making in digital technology. What we are doing is all about improving the capability of our operatives in the field. That is the direction in which our European allies and the United States are going, and it will give us inter-operability with our main allies. I do not see it as a cut; I see it as an enhanced capability.