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Air Transport

Volume 451: debated on Monday 30 October 2006

Before I start, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our sincere condolences to the friends and families of Lieutenant Tom Tanswell of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery, who died in Iraq last week, and those of Marine Gary Wright of 45 Commando Royal Marines, who died in Afghanistan the week before.

The RAF’s fixed wing troop-carrying capability is provided by a mix of RAF aircraft and, when required, by civilian chartered aircraft, which are used during times of peak tasking. We are planning to enhance the RAF’s strategic troop-carrying and air tanker capability, currently provided by the VC10 and Tristar aircraft, with the future strategic tanker aircraft. We are also enhancing tactical troop-carrying capability with the procurement of 25 A400M aircraft.

May I first associate myself with the Minister’s comments with regard to the two very brave men who lost their lives? Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and loved ones.

Is it true that owing to a lack of RAF capacity as regards transport those who are serving on the front line and wish to come home for leave sometimes have to wait days before they can do so? Does it not add insult to injury that those men should have that time deducted from their leave? I should be most grateful for the Minister’s comments.

I would remind the hon. Gentleman that there are men and women. There is an issue relating to the reliability of the operational bridge to Iraq and Afghanistan, which is why the RAF tries to make it its highest priority. We regret any disruption that those air bridge difficulties may have caused to the plans of personnel. I was recently in correspondence with one of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends, who as a serving Territorial Army officer experienced significant difficulties in Cyprus. We have dealt with that. Today I wrote to respond to all the detailed questions that he raised in his letter. He is not in the House today; I understand that he is in Cyprus with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It would be useful if that correspondence were placed in the Library to make all the details available.

What action is the Minister taking to deal with the shortage of helicopter lift capability? In particular, given the excellent performance of the Merlin helicopters in Iraq and elsewhere, is he considering the possibility of an early procurement decision to increase the number of Merlin helicopters available in the early part of next year?

I am inclined to say that there is not the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes. We have looked into this. Commanders are not asking for more helicopters. The hon. Gentleman looks quizzical. I understand that he may want to get business for his constituency, but we have to listen to what is required on the ground. We have asked for a full review of the situation and we are trying to see whether any remedial action can be taken in sufficient time to deal with any such matters that may have arisen, are arising, or may arise in future. This is all under review, and it is too early to say what the conclusions may be.

The Hercules aircraft based at RAF Lyneham in my constituency is the workhorse of the air bridge with Iraq and Afghanistan. As the Minister knows, one of the conclusions of the Government’s inquiry into the tragic crash of the Hercules in Iraq more than a year ago was that it is vitally important that foam suppressant should be fitted around the wing tanks of the planes so that, were they hit by small arms fire, there would be no repeat of that tragedy. What progress has been made in the fitting of foam suppressant to the remaining Hercules fleet, particularly the five that are currently deployed in Afghanistan?

As ever, when we have to learn lessons, we do. That is the principal purpose of boards of inquiry, although sometimes another examination of events may give us additional information. We have taken on board all the recommendations by the board of inquiry that deals with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. The programme to fit explosive-suppressant foam to the aircraft continues as planned, and two aircraft have been fitted so far. We will continue to work through that programme. It takes time because aircraft have to come out of service for fitting to take place, but we are on target to achieve the objectives that he mentions.

Conservative Members join the Minister in sending our condolences to the families of those who have recently given their lives for our country, showing yet again the bravery of British troops on operations around the world.

The Minister will recall that I wrote to him in March, warning that the lack of

“sufficient, reliable and properly equipped aircraft … was adding to the stress on soldiers and their families and causing tension between the RAF and the other services”.

That point was graphically reinforced six months later by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). Does the Minister accept that responsibility for the fiasco lies not with the Royal Air Force but with Ministers, who have cut RAF numbers by 7,500 and require them to operate clapped-out old kit? In his reply in April, the Minister said—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point. He is asking a question, which he must not turn into a speech. It is simply not on to quote from a letter.

The Minister gave me an assurance that investment would be made. When can our troops cease to feel let down by the Government and have the kit that they need to do the job that is being asked of them?

I heard one of my hon. Friends say as an aside that the hon. Gentleman is still learning. I thought that he would have learned the valuable lesson that it takes time to procure new equipment.I mentioned the A400M—I know that the hon. Gentleman supports the programme—but it takes time for that aircraft to be procured and put into theatre. The strategic tanker aircraft is also undergoing its final procurement analysis. The complex programme will ensure that we have a long-term solution for many decades to deal with some of the problems. Is he genuinely suggesting that, given that we do not have those aircraft, we should not use our existing aircraft? I think not. If he believes that they are not suitable and fit for purpose, he is wrong. The aircraft that go into the theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan must have appropriate defensive aids suites. So as to ensure that we get the best support, we have to lift them out in troopers and put them on through a mixture of RAF aircraft or hired civilian aircraft. We are now doing that. We understand the associated problems. We regret every incident when we have failed. However, such failures are not through want of effort or, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, because of clapped-out old kit.