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Joint Combat Aircraft

Volume 488: debated on Monday 23 February 2009

4. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the development of the joint combat aircraft. (257883)

I visited Fort Worth for discussions on this programme with Lockheed Martin about 10 days ago, and the programme is proceeding very satisfactorily. I am sure that this is a capability that our country needs, and I hope that we will be able to make an important announcement about it over the next few weeks.

Can the Minister use this opportunity to confirm that the delays to the future carrier programme announced last December are in no way connected with potential delays to the joint strike fighter programme?

The ability of senior MOD civil servants to deliver major capital projects on time and within budget is not something that automatically springs to mind when one reflects on their abilities. The defence information infrastructure IT project was costed at £2.3 billion. It is now running at £5.8 billion, even though it was not reported to Parliament, and its projected cost is now £7.1 billion. Will the Minister reassure the House that that £5 billion overspend will not inhibit our ability to finance the project that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) has asked about? When are we going to get a grip on some of the major projects for which the Ministry of Defence is responsible?

My hon. Friend has found an ingenious way of bringing up a subject to which I know he is very committed. I can give him the assurance that we are making progress—albeit with a delay, sadly, as he rightly said, in respect of the defence information infrastructure programme. The latest figures I have seen show that we have managed to install some 62,000 computer terminals and we hope to complete another 100,000 by the end of the year. I can assure my hon. Friend that the problems with this particular project will have no consequences at all for the joint strike fighter programme.

The joint combat aircraft will be based at RAF Lossiemouth, where a good deal of work has already been done on the transition from Tornadoes to the JCA. Is the Ministry of Defence content with those preparations and is it confident that the changes will go to time?

I have not looked at those particular preparations in detail, as it is still some time before we take delivery of those aircraft, but the hon. Gentleman can be certain that we are watching that matter very closely indeed. We do not intend to invest in this programme, with all the enormous importance it has for the future of the nation’s defence capability, without ensuring that proper support mechanisms are in place for it.

We are widely informed that the development of the joint strike fighter has led to a two-year delay in the aircraft carrier project. Will the Minister confirm that there has been no official announcement that work that has been destined for the Tyne for more than 12 months now on the aircraft carrier has been transferred to Scotland? Will he meet me and a number of other Members from the north-east, along with the trade union leaders, to discuss the matter further?

I am always delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I mean my hon. Friend. I would be more than happy to meet him. I have already given the House the assurance that the reprofiling of the carrier programme was in no sense due to any delays in the JSF programme, and we have made that clear from the outset. I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied with that. So far as the distribution of work on the carrier is concerned, as my hon. Friend knows, we have a contract with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and it is up to the alliance to decide where it would be most efficient and most appropriate to locate the work that needs to be undertaken. It is not for us to designate particular sites.

Typically, the Minister piled confusion upon confusion. He has just told the House that there is no connection between the delay in the aircraft carriers and the acquisition of the joint combat aircraft or joint strike fighter. I point out to him that his own Secretary of State made a statement to the House on 11 December—a statement that we have previously had no opportunity to discuss. In that statement he said:

“We have concluded that there is scope for bringing more closely into line the introduction of the joint combat aircraft and the aircraft carrier. This is likely to mean delaying the in-service date of the new carriers by one to two years.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 67WS.]

The Minister and the Secretary of State cannot both be telling the truth. Which one is true?

The hon. Gentleman was not listening to me and has got it exactly the wrong way round. It was put to me this afternoon that the reason for reprofiling the dates of the manufacture and delivery of the carriers was the delay in the JSF programme. I have explained that there was no delay and that that is not therefore the reason for reprofiling the carriers. The reason for doing so was, quite simply, that it made no sense to spend money much earlier than required to no possible benefit when we could not advance the date of JSF delivery even if we wanted to. We have made that very clear. It is exactly the other way round. The hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, has completely failed to understand the situation.

Will the Minister assure me that Britain will have complete autonomy in its use of the joint strike fighter? Is he absolutely certain that we will be able to fly it to its full potential, maintain and upgrade it without the support of American personnel?

My hon. Friend has put his finger on a number of important points, and I can assure him that we are confident of meeting those objectives. It is a central priority in our programme to do so.