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RAF Lyneham (Strategic Defence)

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(David Wright.)

I will begin by saying how pleased I am to have the opportunity to debate a matter of key concern to my constituency, as RAF Lyneham is based in North Wiltshire. I should say at the outset, however, that the debate is not about RAF Lyneham or North Wiltshire, although I hope that a side effect of what I will say might be a rethinking of the plan to close the base. The debate is about the strategic defence of the realm, the way in which the air transport fleet as a whole has been developed over recent years and current plans for its future change.

It would be wrong to start the debate without paying due tribute to the airmen and airwomen of RAF Lyneham who play such a central role in armed conflicts around the world. “First in, last out” is their great claim, to supply, to save, and to provide everything that the Army, Air Force and Royal Navy need on the ground. That all comes from RAF Lyneham in the magnificent Hercules C-130Ks and C-130Js. They have done a superb job for the nation and I pay tribute to all that they do.

They also play a central role in the repatriation of military bodies through RAF Lyneham. I know that the Minister will be as concerned as I am by the ridiculous notion expressed by Mr. Choudary that he might lead some kind of counter-protest through the streets of Wootton Bassett. I know that the Government, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and others are totally opposed to any such nonsense. I mention, in passing, that I was surprised by Sir Hugh Orde’s remarks on the front page of The Daily Telegraph this morning, as he believes that Mr. Choudary’s procession down Wootton Bassett high street should go ahead. That seems an odd remark for Sir Hugh to have made, as he has no possible connection with policing in Wiltshire. I am glad that the Government are determined, as am I, to prevent any such protest.

The debate is not about RAF Lyneham, but about the air transport fleet more widely and a series of decisions made in recent years which seem to be wrong-headed, incorrect and internally inconsistent and which seem to have got the whole question of how we spend our defence budgets on air transport wrong. That relates in part to how the procurements have been run, most notably for the A400M, which I will return to in a moment. The debate is partly about the basing study, which concluded that all our air transport should be brought together in RAF Brize Norton. It seems to me that that started on the wrong premise, was written with the wrong arguments and included some questionable accounting. In general, it is well worthy of revisiting.

The Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats—in the event that they form a Government—are committed to a strategic defence review after the general election. As a result of our discussions this morning, therefore, we should at least be ready to think that all those questions about air transport should be re-examined on a fundamental and strategic level in the SDR that will follow the general election. I have mentioned two aspects, but other areas to be considered include cargo, passengers and air-to-air refuelling. In the meantime, other decisions and actions that might prevent that re-examination in the SDR should be stopped. That is the main thrust of what I am seeking to achieve in the debate.

The Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and other hon. Members will know of the various plans currently afoot for the air transport fleet. We will run down the remaining 16 C-130Ks by 2012 and move the 24 C-130Js to RAF Brize Norton. I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement just before Christmas that we will buy a further C-17, taking that fleet to seven. Theoretically, at least we are going to buy 25 A400M airframes, and I will return to that point later. It is claimed that those will be in service from 2015, but we have no idea when the first plane will come or how long it will take for the rest to come into service after that. We are going to buy a total of 14 A330 tankers—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot will expand on in a moment. We are also going to retire the VC10s and TriStars. All of that will be brought together at RAF Brize Norton, with RAF Lyneham closing by December 2012. All of that is known.

I have put together a little dossier, a copy of which I have given to the Minister, and copies are available for other Members and interested parties. It brings together all those facts, figures and thoughts in one easy place, and I should be grateful if the Minister would ask officials to respond to it in detail after the debate.

Central to all that has been planned for the air transport fleet is the notion that the A400M, together with the tankers and the C-130Js, will supply all our air transport needs, now and in all known or potential future conflicts. Central to those plans is the notion that that mix of C-130Js and the A400M could fill a smaller strategic footprint and, therefore, could all be crammed together at RAF Brize Norton. Behind that lies the notion that closing RAF Lyneham will save sufficient money to make possible the necessary upgrade at Brize Norton. I will briefly examine all those presumptions.

The first test flight of the A400M occurred recently, but everyone in this Chamber and outside knows that large questions remain over whether it will be ready in time—it almost certainly will not. We have no idea at all how much it will cost. Reuters reported this week that the chairman of EADS, the manufacturing company, said that unless substantially more money is pumped into the A400M, it will not want to go ahead with it. The Germans are busy touring the middle east trying to find new partners in the project.

I know that the former, and very much lamented, Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), in the week or two before he stood down from that post, and after being prompted by the RAF at a senior level, announced to the Department that he would cancel the A400M. That decision was overturned more recently, and it will be being considered within the Ministry of Defence, but I am reliably informed that he had decided to cancel the A400M for the reasons I shall describe.

In any case, no one believes that the gap between the end of the C-130Ks and the incoming A400Ms will be bridged. There is an undeniable gap in our strategic and tactical air transport fleet, and anyone who knows anything about these things is extremely worried about that gap. In a recent briefing here in the House of Commons, the Chief of the Air Staff commented on how the C-17s are burning up:

“The C-17s are burning up their useful life at an alarming rate, and will not last their projected 25 year lifespan.”

He said that there is a major problem with the C-17 fleet, that he knows that there is a major problem with the C-130Ks and that the A400Ms will not fit that gap.

Even if the A400M is ready, is it really what we want? It is not big enough for the future rapid effect system project, which is now on the back burner at least, and possibly cancelled, and it is not big enough for the Mastiff. Helicopters, which are now so important in theatres such as Afghanistan, even when dismantled to a relatively sensible level, cannot be put in the A400M, but they could be put in the C-17. Many people in the RAF are not at all certain that the A400M is what they want or that it is fit for purpose. Many people in the RAF and the MOD are increasingly coming to the view that a better fleet would be a mixture of C-17s and C-130Js. I am told that it would be possible to purchase more of both from Boeing, were the Government to make that decision reasonably swiftly.

Such a decision would, of course, have industrial consequences, not least in my constituency. The wings for the A400M are made in Filton in Bristol, so I am conscious that there would be industrial consequences if they were to be cancelled. None the less, surely the SDR and what we are considering this morning should not be about jobs or industry, but about the proper defence of the realm. If we identify a gap in our defences, and I believe that the air transport fleet is such a gap, surely it is not right to allow it to continue because jobs depend on it. Surely we want to do what is right for the air transport fleet, irrespective of the sad fact that cancelling the A400M might have consequences for jobs in Bristol. After all, closing RAF Lyneham would have huge consequences, as some 10,000 people in my constituency altogether, including spouses, owe their livelihoods to it. The Government have decided to close it despite the devastating consequences that that would have on the economy of my constituency. We have to take decisions that are right for the defence of the realm, irrespective of the economic consequences—in this case, for Bristol.

The Government’s conclusion that everything should be brought together at RAF Brize Norton through Project CATARA—centralised air transport and air-to-air refuelling assets—is wrong for a wide variety of reasons. This is a direct quote from what an extremely senior RAF officer said to me the other day:

“The move to Brize is to be completed with no reduction in operational tempo. It will be a disaster which the RAF will regret, but it’s got to be made to happen. I’m just glad that I’ll have left by then, so it’s [others] who will have to live with the mess.”

A serving RAF officer who knows exactly what he is talking about is delighted that he will have left the RAF by the time Project CATARA is completed. Others will have to live with the mess.

In the main, I want to touch on what that mess will be. It is fairly obvious that Project CATARA will put all our air transport eggs in one basket. It is very neat to take all our air transport and bung it in one place. Of course, there is only one runway at Brize Norton, compared with the three that we have at present: two at Lyneham and one at Brize Norton. Bung everything into one place at Brize Norton—what an invitation to an enemy, a terrorist or adverse weather conditions. Brize Norton is subject to flooding and fog, and if the runway is closed incessantly because of weather or—I shudder to say it—a dirty bomb on the one runway, we would remove our entire air transport capabilities for days or weeks.

Recently, a Vulcan was in the air, and a TriStar had a blowout on the runway at Brize Norton. The Vulcan had to divert to RAF Lyneham—thank goodness it was still there—and the plane landed with just enough fuel left. The other day, an emergency helicopter requested permission to land at Brize Norton and was told that it could not because there was not room on the runway. What a foretaste of things to come—we are putting all our air transport eggs in one basket.

I tabled a parliamentary question the other day, asking what would happen if the Brize Norton runway were to be closed for some reason or other. The Minister responded that in the event of the Brize runway being closed, civilian airports would be used in an emergency. By contrast, the day after I got that response, I had breakfast here, thanks to the excellent all-party Royal Air Force group, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot. The Chief of the Air Staff was there, and I asked him what would happen if all our air transport eggs were in one basket at Brize Norton, and it were closed for some reason. He said, “We would have to use other airports.” I said, “That is very interesting, Chief. Which other airports have you in mind?” He said, “I think Bournemouth.” There we have it: Bournemouth. RAF Lyneham is closed, RAF Brize Norton is out of operation because of weather or a terrorist bomb, and we have dangerous cargoes, weapons, and, sadly, perhaps dead bodies being returned to Bournemouth airport. Does this Parliament really want Bournemouth airport to be used as an alternative to our RAF bases? I am sure that we do not.

Anyway, Brize Norton is fantastically crammed already. It is a much smaller airport than Lyneham, and there simply is not enough room for the 6,000 servicemen and their aircraft that will be based there. There will be 65 planes altogether, but there are only 62 parking slots, so it is too small for the planes themselves. There is no room at all for training. The Government are talking about reactivating Keevil airport for training purposes. Keevil has been used only by gliders for some years now. They are talking about closing Lyneham and bringing Keevil back.

There are not nearly enough married quarters at Brize Norton, so we have two options. We could bus all the airmen down from Lyneham to Brize Norton—they have already been told that that will take two hours each day off their shifts, thereby restricting the length of their shifts. Alternatively, the Government are looking into whether they could buy the married quarters at Faringdon. They are going to close the married quarters at Lyneham and buy Faringdon. The cost of buying the married quarters at Faringdon is £200 million. What complete and utter nonsense that is.

By contrast, of course, Lyneham has everything that could possibly be wanted. It has huge ramp and hangar capacity and plenty of married accommodation. Its simulators are state of the art. The C-130J simulator is widely known to be absolutely the best in the business. It will be torn down by big cranes and £10 million will be spent on building a new one at Brize Norton—another £10 million wasted.

The people around RAF Lyneham are not noise-averse—they are wholly supportive of the RAF. I am not certain that the people of Carterton in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, would necessarily be all that pleased about having all the planes in one place.

One particular thing worries me enormously. The House has been concerned in recent weeks about accidents of one kind and another that have occurred because of cost-paring in the MOD budget. There are some worrying air traffic control implications with all the planes operating from Brize Norton under Project CATARA. I have expanded on that in detail in the dossier that I have given the Minister, but there are three important aspects.

First, Lyneham and Brize Norton are at very different altitudes, and the runways go in different directions. Basically, they are at right angles to each other. Lyneham has two runways, and Brize Norton has one, which is often closed by fog or snow. They are ideal alternative airports to each other. Planes can easily divert from Lyneham to Brize Norton and vice versa. Of course, that safety arrangement would be lost if Lyneham were closed.

Secondly, a recently retired RAF air traffic controller said to me:

“It is certain—

certain—

“that the increase of aircraft numbers at Brize Norton will make the air traffic control environment a lot more difficult to handle, especially without the safety valve of Lyneham.”

He went on to say that there was a real likelihood of accidents occurring as a result of the absence of that safety valve.

In a parliamentary question, I asked the Minister what consideration had been given to the air traffic control implications of Project CATARA, and what he was doing about the safety aspects. He replied that

“consideration of potential airspace issues relating to the expansion of RAF Brize Norton's role remains ongoing.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 1215W.]

The Minister had not yet considered whether there were air traffic control or safety implications in Project CATARA. The Government do not know. Putting everything at Brize Norton may actually make life more dangerous and result in accidents, but the MOD has not yet looked into it—it is considering the matter. I find it absolutely astonishing that we as a country will spend hundreds of millions of pounds to bring all the planes together in one place, but we have not looked into whether that may make our air transport more dangerous, and result in more accidents.

The third point on air traffic control is that the concentration of aircraft at Brize will result in some real problems on the ground. I put some maps in my dossier, but, in simple terms, at Brize Norton there is no taxiway parallel to the runway to the north. There is only a taxiway to the south. What has to be done in such circumstances is rather like what is done at Heathrow, which has a one-way system.

However, having no taxiway to the north, which, incidentally, is where the passenger terminal and the operations base are, means that all the planes have to cross the runway to get where they are going. There are already substantial delays at RAF Brize Norton. A pilot tells me that one can wait for up to half an hour. One VC10 on the runway would mean that other planes would have to wait for half an hour to get across the runway. It is widely presumed that one cannot achieve a satisfactory operation with no taxiway to the north of the runway. Those details are laid out more carefully in the paper that I have given the Minister. There are very real problems: we are talking about the potential for huge congestion at RAF Brize Norton, which will obviously curtail our capabilities overseas.

Those problems and all the others that I have mentioned could, of course, be sorted out if the Government were to spend a sufficient amount of money on Project CATARA. Clearly, if they chucked a lot of money at it, they could build a second taxiway, reorganise the officers’ mess, which I gather is in the way, sort out the married quarters and the simulators and so on. Therefore, I would like to take a quick look at a rather obscure area of MOD accounting. I shall try not to bore the House too much with the detail, which, again, I have laid out with some care in my paper.

Originally, this project was budgeted to cost £360 million: the Government were going to spend £360 million on bringing all the planes together at RAF Brize Norton. However, I hear that that has already been slashed to £180 million to help pay for Operation Herrick in Afghanistan. Imagine any project’s budget being cut in half; either the budget was vastly too great in the first place or we are cutting corners to a significant extent today to achieve other things in the MOD budget. I should be interested to know whether that is so.

I have also been told that the way the MOD have worked the accounting on this project means that it is concealing quite a large amount of the infrastructure costs of Brize Norton, not under Project CATARA but under the A400M project. It is covering up the actual cost of rebuilding Brize Norton by putting the money invisibly into the A400M project. The Minister looks surprised by that, but it is simple. Perhaps he would care to lay out for me—I will happily table a parliamentary question to this effect—in words of one syllable the total infrastructure costs of rebuilding RAF Brize Norton. I have asked a number of parliamentary questions and been fobbed off. If the Minister denies that this is so, I will happily table a parliamentary question today and I expect him to reply by laying out in minute detail precisely what all the infrastructure costs are at Brize Norton. I suspect that they are much higher than he is currently prepared to admit.

The second area of dodgy accounting that I would like the Minister to look into is the annual saving from the closure of Lyneham that is talked about. At the moment there is a £44 million budget, but of course most of that will go across to Brize Norton. I am told that the net saving from closing Lyneham is round about £6 million a year: absolute peanuts. So it will cost us hundreds of millions of pounds to move to Brize Norton and we are saving £6 million a year. The MOD’s brave claim that this will all pay for itself within a few years is exposed as nonsense. I suspect that it will take at least 50 years to repay it, and probably even longer.

Perhaps we will make a lot of money out of selling the RAF Lyneham site. If we can make hundreds of millions out of that, we can use the money to pay for CATARA. I have looked carefully into that, too, and have noticed a couple of things. First, the so-called Crichel Down rules will apply to the sale of RAF Brize Norton. In other words, it has to be offered back to the original owners from whom it was requisitioned in 1938. A Member of the House of Lords, the noble Lord who occupies Corsham manor nearby, is the original owner. I suspect that that Liberal Democrat noble Lord will lay hands on it and say, “Thank you very much indeed. I’ll have the land back at the original price.” Anyhow, local planning rules mean that the site could not be used for extensive building, although there might be some light house building.

More importantly, it seems likely that the cost of decontaminating the site, as required under the Crichel Down rules, would be enormous. I asked the Minister how much he has budgeted to decontaminate the site of RAF Lyneham and here is his answer:

“Until a”

land quality assessment

“has been completed, it is not possible to give an estimate of the costs relating to land contamination. We currently anticipate that an initial LQA of the site will be undertaken in financial year 2010-11”.—[Official Report, 16 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 1217W.]

In other words, they are talking about moving out of Lyneham and selling it under the Crichel Down rules, which means that it is not worth much anyhow, and they do not have the faintest idea—they have not yet even considered—how much it will cost to decontaminate the site. I can tell the Minister that I have been on the site many times over 13 years and it is absolutely contaminated up to the eyeballs. Local estimates suggest a possible cost of £100 million to decontaminate the RAF Lyneham site.

One RAF officer told me, “I’ve heard that according to the figures we’re putting into the budgets, we’ll sell the site for £10 million and it will cost £10 million to do it up—to decontaminate it.” I can tell the Minister that he will sell the site for almost nothing at all, if anything, and the contingent liability on the Government to get rid of the contamination and buildings and general mess that will be left on the site will be hundreds of millions of pounds. That is a huge white elephant for the Government and, at a time when defence budgets are under constraint as they are, to waste money in the way that we are describing is wrong.

The Minister should come forward with clear figures about precisely how much it is costing to move all these planes to RAF Brize Norton and how much he intends to save by closing RAF Lyneham, and he should say how much he intends to make, or believes he will make, from selling the RAF Lyneham site. He must come up with a substantial net figure, showing a saving in relation to the large tactical and infrastructure problems that I have described with regard to Brize Norton, to make it work. I do not believe that he can do it. If he thinks that he can do it, I refer him to the late-lamented project to bring all the Army and Air Force helicopters together in one place from three or four bases around England—Project Belvedere—that we decided not to go ahead with just before Christmas. It was concluded that the cost of bringing them together in one place at Lyneham, despite the fact that the bases would then be sold, was vastly greater than the cost of leaving them where they were. If that was the logic regarding Project Belvedere, how on earth can Project CATARA come to the opposite conclusion—namely, that bringing all these things together at Brize Norton will somehow save money?

I suspect that a decision was taken some years ago by the RAF or by civil servants, who decided to gallop down this track and are now realising that there are problems inherent in bringing all the planes together in one place and that the sums do not add up. The right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness had the guts to say, “Actually, I want to turn this thing round. I want a fundamental look at it.” But sadly he did not stay in the job long enough. The fact that the air transport projects that I have described are in a complete and utter muddle cannot be squared.

I shall say only one thing in regard to this debate: I should like the Minister to acknowledge that some of these things are wrong and that he does not necessarily have all the answers to the debate today. We have a strategic defence review coming up and this matter is central to it. If we cannot supply our troops on the ground and cannot get our people out to theatre of war, we cannot conduct a proper war. If the Minister will say to me today, “I want to have a fundamental look at the A400M, at Project CATARA and at the closure of RAF Lyneham and I will do that in my much-promised strategic defence review”, I will take the view that this debate has been worth while.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing the debate and on his impressive dossier, which is one of the most comprehensive that I have seen prepared for any Westminster Hall debate. The hon. Gentleman put forward his case strongly and I should like to hear the Minister’s response to it.

The hon. Gentleman has been running this campaign in a determined way since the decision was announced a number of years ago. He has worked on a cross-party basis with a number of people in his constituency, including some with political affiliation and some with none. I commend him for his efforts during that time. Unfortunately, the Minister and the Government seem equally determined to proceed with their case. Today’s debate gives us the time to explore that decision and to see whether there is solid justification for their proposals.

The hon. Gentleman was trying to broaden the debate to cover the airlift capacity for the defence of the realm, but he rightly focused on the implications for RAF Lyneham—I do not criticise him for doing so. I support his basic claim that as we are so close to a strategic defence review, this matter should be considered as part of that. We are considering a long-standing decision that goes back a number of years, but because of the facts that the hon. Gentleman advanced in such a detailed way, it would be illogical to rush to a decision on Lyneham so close to a strategic defence review.

Essentially, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should take time out and think about the matter more broadly, as part of consideration of the A400M problems, the C-130K life extension and its potential costs, issues to do with Brize Norton, and so forth. Given that those matters are complicated and detailed, they are worth considering as part of a strategic defence review, so I urge the Minister to tell us why we should proceed with this decision so close to a strategic defence review?

In his dossier, the hon. Gentleman advanced a number of detailed concerns about the consequences of Project CATARA. He put them in simple terms—putting all the eggs in one basket, over-cramming, air control, the safety case—and I do not wish to repeat the factors that he mentioned. He described these serious considerations in a compelling way and I hope that the Minister will respond in detail.

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I have read his previous debates on this subject in which alternative uses for the site were suggested, should the closure proceed. I would like the Minister to tell us what options have been explored, as some uses seem to have been ruled out. The hon. Gentleman considered the rapid reaction corps and various other alternatives, but we have not had an explanation as to why those suggestions were ruled out by the Ministry of Defence.

If the closure proceeds, will the Minister tell us what is planned in the way of support for the community? The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the parades in Wootton Bassett and its recognition of the servicemen and women who have lost their lives in conflict. It has been a totemic centre point for the whole of the UK to express its grief. We should be looking after that community, given the service that it has provided to the rest of the country, and I would like to hear what is planned, should the closure go ahead. What regeneration package is in place, and what is proposed for the use of the site?

There are also concerns about the Future Brize project, including the accommodation expansion. Part of that project involves overhauling the IT system, engineering, housing and so on. In response to a parliamentary question, the Ministry of Defence stated:

“some accommodation at Brize Norton is not of the standard that service personnel and their families deserve”

and

“we are taking steps to address this.”—[Official Report, 8 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1134W.]

There are reports about cuts in the budget for the changeover from Lyneham to Brize Norton. What impact has that had on the upgrade of the accommodation at Brize Norton?

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the diversion plans. He referred—quite amusingly—to the Bournemouth possibility, but there are also reports that RAF Fairford could be used.

I am conscious that I slightly misquoted the Chief of the Air Staff during my speech, and the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity of correcting that. The Chief of the Air Staff said that a number of other bases might be used, and in a list of several he mentioned Bournemouth. I perhaps chose the most ridiculous example, thereby slightly misquoting the Chief of the Air Staff, and I am grateful for the opportunity to correct myself.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has done so because it is important that we get the facts straight. RAF Fairford is also a possibility for consideration, but the US air force is pulling out of there in 2010. What are the implications of that for the diversionary plans, if Brize Norton cannot be used under certain circumstances? I would like to hear those details from the Minister.

On the wider issue of airlift for the defence of the country, the procurement of the A400M has been problematic. As a pro-European, my heart is with the A400M and I am keen for it to be successful. However, there have been a number of problems, almost from the beginning—that is probably typical of many projects within the Ministry of Defence that experience problems due to delays, overruns, and specifications. A number of reports have covered issues such as whether the plane is now overweight and will not be able to carry the 32 tonnes originally envisaged but will instead carry only 29 tonnes. There is an issue about whether the plane is big enough, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and there are concerns about the future rapid effect system vehicle, which we have discussed and are waiting for with great anticipation. Will it fit in the plane, or will the tyres have to be let down to squeeze it in? Will the helicopters need to be dismantled to such a ridiculous level that it is hardly worth while? Are those problems real? It would be helpful if the Minister could be frank about those issues and tell us in some detail how they will be addressed.

Yesterday, there were reports that the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company was getting frustrated with European Governments’ inability to make a decision about the future of the A400M. It is demanding a decision by the end of the month. It would be helpful to have an update of the position on that. Will the extra €5 billion be covered, or is the project going to be scrapped? Those are important decisions affecting an important platform that we require for our defence. It is important to have some frankness about the project so that we may have confidence going forward.

We must also have contingency plans in place, and that is the next point that I hope the Minister will address. I have heard reports that the A400M could perhaps be delayed until as far ahead as 2020. That seems ridiculous, but the reports are from well-sourced people. Are contingency plans in place to cover that significant gap? In 2006, the Defence Committee expressed concern about extending the life of the C-130Ks beyond the life extension currently proposed, which would cost about £26 million. Its 2006 report stated:

“The delay to the A400M programme has required the lives of ageing C-130K aircraft to be extended. If there are any further delays in the A400M programme, the scope for further extending the lives of C-130K aircraft may be limited, and expensive, leaving a potential capability gap.”

What assessment has been made of that possible need for a further life extension, and what would the costs be? If concerns about a life extension existed in 2006, what are they now?

There have been extensive reports on this subject. At the end of last year, we had a statement from the Ministry of Defence about the problems in the defence budget. Can we afford to plug that affordability gap? If it is not physically possible to have the life extension, can we afford to buy additional kit to plug the capability gap because of the problems with the MOD budget? These are serious issues. We need confidence and clarity about what is planned, or debates such as this will continue.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire has done a great service, and I know that he works closely with people in North Wiltshire to try and achieve a successful outcome. Again, I appeal to the Minister by repeating my central point: why, so close to a strategic defence review, would we rush this decision when there are so many complicated factors that need to be taken into consideration? I hope that he will respond to that in his reply.

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Howarth. At the outset, let me congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on successfully securing this debate. He has done us all a huge service, and he has produced a document that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) has rightly identified as extremely professional. Although my hon. Friend clearly has a constituency interest, which he has promoted with extraordinary diligence, he has made a compelling generic case for the role of RAF Lyneham and for the future of the air transport fleet. I will return to that in a moment.

I also wish to pay tribute to RAF Lyneham for the particularly gruesome role that has been thrust upon it, as the entry point for the repatriation of those who have fallen in Afghanistan. Having visited Lyneham, I know that it is not easy for the people at Lyneham and the Royal Air Force personnel to have constant public attention due to that extremely sad aspect of the war in Afghanistan, which has been thrust upon them on a weekly basis. I hope that my hon. Friend will take back to all those who operate at Lyneham our enormous appreciation for what they do, on behalf of not only all three services but the nation.

It would be wrong, in paying tribute to Lyneham, not to pay tribute also to the people of Wootton Bassett, who, by common consent, have struck such a chord across this kingdom because of the extraordinary dignity with which they have paid their public but in a sense private tribute to the fallen. I fully endorse my hon. Friend’s concerns about the endeavours of that serial ranter, Anjem Choudary, to try to destabilise the position and cause untold offence across the land. I am sure that the Government will take the same view; indeed, the Prime Minister expressed his abhorrence the day before yesterday. What Sir Hugh Orde thinks he is doing, goodness knows, but I certainly share my hon. Friend’s view on that matter.

I also pay tribute to the personnel at RAF Lyneham for the contribution that they make, across a range of activities, through the C-130 Hercules fleet. That aircraft has been in existence for about 50 years and has proved itself across a huge range of military and civilian air operations to be an outstanding platform. Versatile and rugged, it is capable of going to the most difficult places. Wherever there is a problem, it is rare not to see a C-130 in the thick of it, doing the business.

Having spent some time on the flight deck of a C-130 flying from Kabul to Camp Bastion before Camp Bastion even had a concrete runway, when it was just bare desert, and having talked to the crew about the trials and tribulations of operating in those extreme circumstances, in which there was no runway lighting save for three markers down each side of the desert strip, visible only through night vision goggles, it would be hard for me not to appreciate the extraordinary skill of the crews—not only the pilots but the loadmasters and other crew members of the C-130—in doing what they do. This is an opportunity for hon. Members to put on record our appreciation for all those Royal Air Force personnel and what they do.

I shall add to the tribute section of my remarks some very personal thanks to the Minister, as well as to the folk at RAF Lyneham. I am a trustee of the Vulcan to the Sky project, which has delivered the only Vulcan to be restored to flying condition. It has been displayed to 2.5 million people this year and has produced something called the Vulcan effect at air shows; it is a huge magnet for attracting the public to air shows. RAF Lyneham has played host to the aircraft over the winter, and we are extremely grateful to RAF Lyneham for providing us with accommodation over the winter, while we are undertaking quite significant modification works to ensure that the aircraft is on the display circuit next year.

I said at the outset that my hon. Friend had produced an extremely professional paper and that he had dealt with much more than simply the situation at Lyneham. Some of the arguments that he advanced are very compelling. One of his key arguments was that there is a severe risk that the Government will put all our eggs in one basket. That reminds me of an expression of Winston Churchill’s during the second world war when it was proposed that a number of Cabinet Ministers be transported together in one aircraft. He thought it undesirable that all his baskets should be confined to one egg.

I agree with my hon. Friend that what he has described is a major factor. I fear that officials see airfields just as opportunities to raise money. They see large tracts of land, which generate pound signs instantly in their eyes. There is a failure to recognise some of the practical implications of these decisions, to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

I have expressed concern both to the Chief of the Air Staff and to others about the risk that we face in reducing the number of runways available, for all the reasons that my hon. Friend has given. If a runway is out of action, we do not have the ability to use that airfield until it is repaired. What was the Vulcan’s endeavour during the Falklands campaign? It was to destroy the runway at Port Stanley, so that the Argentines could not use it to reinforce their troops on the Falkland Islands. In my view, we are taking a risk. It is fine to say that, in an emergency, we would close civilian airports to civilian operations and make them available for military use, but that is an unsatisfactory way of dealing with the issue.

The idea is that Brize Norton will be able to host a huge number of aircraft: myriad fleets, including the C-17, which has now been increased to seven aircraft, the future strategic tanker aircraft—up to 14 of those—C-130 aircraft, of which there are at least 40 at the moment and there will possibly be more, and the A400M, with another 25 of those. The FSTA will have its own bespoke hangar. The idea that Brize Norton will be able to host all that on an already fairly congested site makes the case admirably.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife referred to the decision of the Americans in effect to put RAF Fairford on a care-and-maintenance basis later this year. I join him in saying to the Minister that we need an explanation of the implications of that for the RAF, of whether the Americans will continue to pay the cost of maintaining the airfield and of whether their decision is likely to have an impact on the MOD’s budget, in that it will have to find funds to keep that airfield available. For all those reasons, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has made a very strong case why we need more than one air transport airfield to provide this essential facility for the RAF.

The wider issue of the air transport fleet is also part of the debate. We have a catalogue of disasters, some of which are this Government’s fault; others are not. In the case of those that are not, I shall return to the A400M later. I shall deal first with the TriStars and the VC10 fleet. Those aircraft provide both air-to-air refuelling and air transport. Most notable in the public’s mind are the TriStars—those 1970s aircraft that had extended airline service and then were bought by the RAF in the 1980s. Those aircraft are now very ancient indeed and their reliability is not as great as people would desire.

The consequence is that our troops out on operations in Afghanistan find that their return home is delayed, and their leave counts from the moment that they leave their theatre of operation, not the airfield. Many soldiers in my constituency of Aldershot have told me of their frustration at finding that their leave has been consumed to far too great an extent by the business of trying to get home from theatre, because of the inadequacy of the air bridge operated out of Brize Norton.

I do not blame the Royal Air Force. The previous Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Glenn Torpy, took the matter in hand and did a huge amount to try to improve the situation, and there has undoubtedly been an improvement in the operation of the air bridge, but the RAF has to operate clapped-out aircraft, and that is simply not fair on those personnel.

Just over a year ago, I travelled to Afghanistan on a TriStar. As an aviator, I seek to spend as much time as I can on the flight deck, so that I can understand some of the issues, and a number of the dials in that aircraft had little red dots on them. I asked what they were for, and the crew said, “We’d better tell him. Those instruments are all unserviceable.” One of those instruments served a reasonably critical purpose. Obviously, the crew were happy to fly the aircraft—a pilot is not going to fly an unserviceable aircraft—but the fact is that the TriStars are old and expensive.

The Government propose to replace the TriStars and the VC10s with the future strategic tanker aircraft. The RAF bought some of the VC10s in the 1960s, so they have been operating for 50 years, although with an extraordinarily good safety record. However, I am on record as opposing that procurement, because it has been absolutely scandalous. Ten years ago, the Government approved a private finance initiative to replace the air-to-air refuelling facility provided by the TriStars and the VC10s. It then took Ministers five years—until 28 February 2005—to announce that the Air Tanker consortium was the preferred bidder. The contracts were not signed until three years later, on 27 March 2008. The first aircraft will not enter service until at least 2011, and the cost will be £13 billion over the 27-year life of the contract. If more than the core fleet of nine Airbus A330 aircraft is required, the costs will presumably go up, although I do not know, because I have had no sight of the commercial contract that the Government have agreed. It is impossible for the Opposition to hold them properly to account, because they will not release the commercial information. We shall have to wait until we come into government to find out exactly what Ministers have signed up to.

The Government’s incompetence has delayed the programme and forced the Ministry of Defence to waste £20 million providing new glass cockpits for the TriStars, which will go out of service. The cockpits are required because the International Civil Aviation Organisation demands that aircraft operating in international airspace have up-to-date flight decks, which the TriStars do not. Marshall Aerospace of Cambridge is undertaking the work, which is not expected to be completed until the end of next year. Those aircraft will go out of service by 2016, when the full fleet of A330 tankers is expected to be in service, and they will presumably be scrapped—I cannot see anybody wanting to buy them. What the Government have done is a scandalous waste of money: not only will £20 million go down the drain, but aircraft that are critical for operations in Afghanistan will be taken offline while their flight decks are completely stripped out and refitted.

Last year, the cost of operating the ancient fleet of VC10s was £83 million; this year, the operating cost will be nearly £30,000 an hour. Why did Ministers not take advantage of a commercial offer from Omega Air to lease DC-10s fully equipped to theatre-entry standard at about one third of the cost of operating the VC10s? Omega Air tells me that it can lease the DC-10s for about £10,000 an hour.

Why did the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement claim that there had been no trial of a commercial alternative, when I have before me clear evidence that such trials have been carried out involving air-to-air refuelling with the Omega Air aircraft? The internal MOD document before me is dated 9 May 2009 and headed “Quick AAR”—or air-to-air refuelling—“win from Exercise Torpedo Focus 08-1/2”. It states that “COS Ops”, which presumably means chief of staff operations, “approved a trial”—I emphasise the word “trial”—“using Omega Air assets”. It describes the trial as “a resounding success”, adding:

“The RAF now has an ‘on the shelf’ clearance to utilise Omega Air assets worldwide.”

In a parliamentary answer last year, however, I was told that no trials had taken place. I demand an explanation. I fully accept that I have landed this on the Minister without advance warning, so I do not expect him to give me a comprehensive answer now—that would be unreasonable—but I hope that he will understand my anger at the fact that I have been told something that, outside this place, might be described as a straightforward lie. I have an internal MOD document that uses the word “trial”, but Ministers say that no trials have taken place, so an explanation is required.

Omega tells me that it has one theatre-entry standard KDC—a DC-10—immediately available. The aircraft can carry more than 350 passengers, and up to six aircraft could be available within a year. If the MOD had seized the opportunity in 2008 to work with the company, which provides continuing service to the US armed forces, they could now be meeting the air bridge and air-to-air refuelling requirement in more modern, efficient and reliable aircraft, thus hugely helping our armed forces in Afghanistan and providing the RAF with the equipment that it needs.

Omega is not the only company to have submitted a proposal to the MOD; Crown Aviation has done so, too. However, despite the desperate need for a more reliable and cheaper aircraft, the MOD has stuck its nose firmly in the sand and ploughed on with clapped out aeroplanes.

A comparison of last year’s planned flying hours for the VC10s and TriStars with the actual flying hours perhaps says it all. The TriStar’s planned hours were 11,561, but it delivered 8,966—a shortfall of more than 2,500 hours, or 22.5 per cent. I wonder whether that is the result of the aircraft’s age and reliability. The VC10’s planned hours were 9,254, but it delivered 8,952, so the shortfall was only 300 hours, which was substantially less than that for the TriStars. The TriStar fleet was clearly well short of its planned utilisation, and it would be helpful if the Minister explained why.

I said that I would say a few words about the A400M. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has raised a number of issues. Again, there is huge uncertainty about the aircraft. I do not entirely blame the Government. I cannot understand the difficulties experienced by Airbus, which delivered the A380 from design to service in about six years—admittedly, the aircraft had some problems, but it is in service. However, the A400M is a basic transport aircraft, and I do not understand how Airbus can have got itself into such a fix. As I say, I do not blame the Government for that, but we need to know their position and what they are going to do.

What is the contractual status of the aircraft? As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has reminded us, Airbus and EADS, the parent company, are so concerned about the implications for the financial health of the company if the contract is persisted with that they are seriously considering possibly scrapping the whole thing themselves. We need to know the Government’s position. It is a fixed-price contract, but the latest National Audit Office major projects report for 2009 makes it clear that the original forecast cost of each aircraft was about £110 million, and that has now gone up to £130 million.

Is it proposed that the Government will operate on the basis of 25 aircraft, at a cost of £130 million? Are they holding Airbus’s feet to the fire and saying, “This was a fixed price contract; you have to deliver at all costs?” Are they bending to Airbus’s concerns and saying, “Okay, we’ll take a reduced number of aircraft at the same price as was originally agreed?” We need to know. The House needs to know; the public need to know and, as my hon. Friend said, the Royal Air Force needs to know, because there are great concerns in the RAF about having such a large mix of aircraft in the fleet. That will undoubtedly add to cost and the logistics of operating the air transport fleet. It is not good enough for the Government to hide behind commercial in-confidence discussions on a matter of such great importance to the nation.

To leave the Minister plenty of time to respond to the debate, I want to conclude by saying that our position is clear. We think that it would be entirely wrong for the Government to pre-empt a strategic defence review that they have said they would undertake if returned to office later in the year and that we, too, have made it clear we would carry out. Indeed, the Government are doing some preparatory work, and so are we. The taking of major decisions that would pre-empt the review will be regarded as at best unreasonable and at worst knavish.

I am sorry to press my hon. Friend, but, of course, a few months from now he may well be the Minister making the decision. Am I right in understanding him as saying that the potential closure of RAF Lyneham and the bringing of things together at RAF Brize Norton could form part of a Conservative Government’s strategic defence review?

Absolutely. I have made it clear to my hon. Friend’s constituents that that is one of the things that we would do. It seems to me essential, if we are to have a defence review that will assess the real and potential threats to the nation, and if, having done so, we are to decide what military capabilities we require to meet those threats, that we must translate those decisions into the aircraft, ships, tanks and armoured vehicles that are needed and the places where they will be based. Making those decisions now—not only is Lyneham affected, of course, as we now hear that Cottesmore is to close—will deprive future Ministers of options that most reasonable people and certainly those who are concerned with defence feel should be available to them; they do not think that the Government should pre-empt those options, as they are doing.

Several RAF stations—I am thinking of places such as South Cerney, Catterick and Dishforth—have been turned over to Army use. Who knows what will happen to the Army in Germany and what decisions might arise out of studies about that? I am not suggesting that any decisions have been made about that, but they could be; and if our forces in Germany were brought back to the United Kingdom, where would they be based? If we close and sell off RAF stations, we limit the options that will be available. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks that we would put the future basing of our fleets—not just the air transport fleet, but the fast jet fleet as well—into the mix for a strategic defence review. That seems to me to be the sensible thing to do, and I am sure that that is what my hon. Friend’s constituents, both military and civilian, want to hear. I hope that those who are informed about such matters will also be reassured to hear it.

It is a pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) in this debate, and I congratulate him on securing it. I thank him for his words of praise for servicemen and women and civilians who have been doing vital work in support of our operations. I thank all the people who work at RAF Lyneham, and the community there who have over the years given incredibly strong support to the station and the Royal Air Force. I also want to thank those who have done so much to ensure that people who lose their lives on operations are repatriated with the honour and dignity that their sacrifice deserves.

As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will be aware, the number and operation of military airfields is under constant review to ensure—and this is rightly the responsibility of Government—that the best use is made of the defence estate for our armed forces. To say that this is not the first time that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue in the House would be the understatement of the year. I pay tribute to him for the tenacity with which he has made his case on behalf of his constituents, who I recognise are understandably concerned for the future of RAF Lyneham. However, although I recognise that there will be some disappointment about it, the answer that I must give him today is unchanged from the one he has heard from successive Defence Ministers over the past five and a half years.

It was first announced on 4 July 2003 that the future air transport and air-to-air refuelling fleets would, by 2012, be collocated at RAF Brize Norton, which from that point would be the single defence airport of embarkation. The hon. Gentleman knows that the strategic review work that considered the future role of RAF Lyneham, RAF Brize Norton and RAF St. Mawgan took more than a year. Phase 1 of the review was to decide the optimum basing for the A400M, which will, as has been discussed, replace the C-130K fleet currently at RAF Lyneham. The hon. Gentleman will recall that in August 2002 the then Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), announced that RAF Brize Norton would be the home to the new fleet. Phase 2 of the review was to consider properly the longer-term future of all three stations. It was as a result of that work that the Government announced that the C-130J fleet would move to RAF Brize Norton in 2011, and that if no further defence use was identified for it, RAF Lyneham would close. That remains the position today.

The decision was driven and underpinned by a clear value-for-money case, which estimated the steady-state saving associated with withdrawing from RAF Lyneham at £27.9 million per annum. In addition, it is currently forecast that the efficiencies generated by amalgamating the functions currently carried out at RAF Lyneham with those based at RAF Brize Norton will realise input and output savings totalling some £437 million from the financial year 2011-12 through to 2019-20 alone.

Although the Minister may not have time now to answer in detail, if I table a parliamentary question on these lines, will he lay out in clear and precise terms how all the arithmetic works?

I was going to come to that, because the hon. Gentleman made that point earlier. He does not need to table a parliamentary question; I will write to him setting out in detail the underpinning logic and the way we have assembled the figures. I understand that it is important to make those clear.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 7 May 2009 that RAF Lyneham was no longer under consideration as a possible location for a consolidated support helicopter base under Project Belvedere. Our studies concluded that the proposal did not represent best value for money—specifically, that the efficiencies that could be achieved from a major rationalisation programme would not produce the necessary return, given the significant investment that would be required to implement the change.

It was therefore decided that to continue Project Belvedere did not represent best value for money for the Department, and the programme was closed. That means, and I know that the hon. Gentleman regrets it, that there will be no change at this stage to the current arrangements. At present, Chinook helicopters operated by the joint helicopter command are based at Royal Air Force Odiham; Apache helicopters are based at Wattisham station; Puma and Merlin helicopters are based at Royal Air Force Benson; the Lynx helicopter operates from Dishforth airfield; and the Commando helicopter force, comprising Sea King and Lynx helicopters, operates from the Royal Naval air station at Yeovilton.

On 15 December last year, the Secretary of State for Defence announced a package of enhancements to our future helicopter fleet, including the procurement of an additional 22 Chinooks to enhance the operational Chinook fleet. Those additional aircraft will be based at RAF Benson, as well as their existing base at RAF Odiham. Our future helicopter fleets will be based at existing rotary wing bases, which does not include RAF Lyneham. The position on RAF Lyneham therefore remains as announced on 4 July 2003 by the then Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow; following the move of the C130 fleet to Royal Air Force Brize Norton, and if no further defence use is identified for Royal Air Force Lyneham, the latter will be closed and disposed of.

Will the Minister answer a simple question? If Project Belvedere, which will bring all helicopters together in one place, does not work, and if not enough savings are made from that exercise to justify the upgrade to RAF Lyneham, how is it that Project CATARA, which will bring Lyneham and Brize Norton together at one base, will save £400 million or so over the next 10 years? How can the arithmetic of one not work whereas the arithmetic of the other can?

It is because they are different propositions. Some rationalisations work from a cost-benefit analysis point of view, and some do not. If one embarks on a course of action or a review and then, through further research, one sees that it will not fly financially, one does not go ahead with that proposition. That is the stage that we have reached. I realise that that is disappointing news for the people at RAF Lyneham and for the local community. Nevertheless, we will do everything that we possibly can to manage the draw-down sensitively, and I shall comment on that in detail later.

The decision to close RAF Lyneham was not taken lightly. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the review that was undertaken was comprehensive. He will recall that the review team briefed him and participated in meetings with local and regional authorities in order to ensure that all the issues could be identified and properly considered. The reality is that it is never easy to close a unit, but we would be failing in our duty if we did not make the best use of taxpayers’ money to meet our defence requirements. To put it bluntly, keeping a station that does not meet the defence need would be a waste of public money. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that proposition.

Recent enhancements to the air transport and support helicopter fleets do not change that position. Infrastructure enhancements at RAF Brize Norton are well under way, and will be sufficient to handle the current and planned air transport and air-to-air refuelling fleets. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of other concerns about the collocation of the air transport and the air-to-air refuelling fleets at RAF Brize Norton. I shall deal with those later. First, however, I shall respond to some of the specific points raised during the debate.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire started by remarking on Mr. Choudary’s proposed march at Wootton Bassett. I share his revulsion at the proposed demonstration. I hope and believe that such a march will not take place. It is disgusting and offensive, and I believe that there is virtually no public support for the town being used and abused in that way. I hope that that message is put across strongly and clearly.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), the shadow Minister, all asked why we would not put off this difficult decision and wait for the strategic defence review. We need a strategic defence review, but I do not believe that such a review can or should be used as an excuse for putting off sensible decisions that are well under way. I say to the Opposition, I hope charitably—they are committed to reducing the public deficit faster than the Government, which at the very least will require an additional £26 billion of spending cuts—that they need more credibility in handling such matters given that, at every juncture, they are effectively calling for delays and further public expenditure. Their arguments simply do not wash.

The Minister is being most generous in giving way. He admits the main thrust of my remarks, which is that not closing RAF Lyneham will save an awful lot of money—the vast sums not needed to upgrade Brize Norton. Let us call a halt to the project. We could spend the money on the front line in Afghanistan, not waste it on silly projects.

I will come later to details of the costings, and I shall set them out in writing for the hon. Gentleman. There is of course a short-term cost, but in the longer term there will be a saving to the Exchequer, which is why we are pursuing this course of action.

Just before the debate started, the hon. Gentleman handed me a copy of a pamphlet—I have not yet had an opportunity to read it—that sets out his views and the detailed research that he has undertaken on RAF Lyneham. I shall read it and instruct my officials to consider it in detail, and I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that I shall arrange a meeting to discuss it with him in as much detail as possible. However, I do not want to mislead anyone. I do not want to raise optimism among the people at RAF Lyneham; I genuinely believe that grounds for such optimism do not exist. I am not convinced that there is an alternative, or that we could reach one. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman has put a lot of work into the pamphlet and argued his case strongly today. I shall meet him at the earliest opportunity.

The hon. Gentleman and others spoke about the A400M. Let me be clear about it; there is no immediate air-lift shortfall on operations. The capability gap resulting from the delay after 2012 will be addressed through a package of measures to enhance the availability of the existing Hercules C130J, and through the procurement that we recently announced of a seventh UK C-17.

I heard what the hon. Member for Aldershot had to say in respect of the negotiations—that we should come clean about them. With respect, the Opposition would make such an argument; but if they were in government they would not reveal their negotiating hand in public while the negotiations were ongoing. It is important to say that we remain committed to the A400M, but not at any cost. We regard contract negotiations as the best means of determining the way forward. I believe that we can achieve a positive outcome, but the discussions are critical. It has to be said that newspaper articles by commercial contractors are placed for a purpose. They are designed to influence the negotiations. It is the Government’s responsibility to get on with our partners in those negotiations, and that is what is happening.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire also spoke of the remarks made by the Chief of the Air Staff. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman corrected what he said. The Chief of the Air Staff said that a number of military or civilian airports might be used in the event of a diversion and that the decision as to which was to be used would depend upon a range of factors, including the weather, runway capacity and the ability to handle large aircraft. The hon. Gentleman rightly corrected himself, saying that Bournemouth was only one example.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned safety. That was considered in detail by the review team. It considered the crisis operational requirements and concluded that there was no strategic reason why the aircraft could not be based at one main operating base. The degree of risk was considered acceptable, given the move towards expeditionary rather than home-base fighting. It found that historical weather data indicated a minimal risk of lengthy weather disruptions, and that both airfields and airspace capacity could cope with the aircraft numbers involved.

The hon. Gentleman asked detailed questions about the costs. As I said, I shall respond in writing. However, in broad-brush terms, the recent programme review concluded that total programme costs of £203 million had been identified against financial benefits of £437 million. The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to forecast costs. They include £10 million for an environmental clean-up. The exact costs are dependent on the conclusion of the ongoing land-quality assessment, which must take place before we can finalise the details.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked about the implications of the US pulling out of RAF Fairford. We must be clear that RAF Fairford is unlikely to be a suitable diversion airfield because its facilities for handling large passenger aircraft are inadequate. Moreover, I do not think that it affects the overall viability of our proposition.

I listened with interest and in detail to the hon. Member for Aldershot as he responded to the case put forward by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire. He said that the argument had been extremely compelling, and that he feared that certain consequences would take place. He said that there were risks involved and that his hon. Friend had made a very strong case. What a detailed reading of Hansard will make of that response is that there was a complete absence of active verbs and commitments as to what the Conservative party would do differently from the Government in respect of RAF Lyneham, apart from delaying the decision, which would recreate uncertainty about the way forward. I have no doubt that if we were to put the matter back into a strategic defence review, the outcome would be the same decision as the one that we are pursuing at the moment.

We have not had a strategic defence review since 1998, and there is a widespread belief that the current review was prompted by our decision to hold a review, and that it should have been undertaken a lot earlier than it has been, which would have resolved this uncertainty much earlier. It is the Government’s own fault; it is pointless to blame the Opposition.

We had always planned to hold a strategic defence review; we announced it of our own volition. I listened with care to what the hon. Member for Aldershot said, and I am sure that the constituents of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will similarly look at the detail of what he said. I had no sense that there was an active proposal by the Opposition to do differently to that which we are doing in government, apart from putting the decision into a strategic defence review, the outcome of which will be the same decision that we are pursuing.

The hon. Member for Aldershot raised an important point about the operational trial. I do not believe that he has been given the wrong information, but given that he raised it with me today I will immediately check the details and write to him in the next week to set the record straight.

As for the issue of jobs and the local economy, I am concerned about the impact on more than 3,000 people—around 2,500 service personnel and around 600 civilians, including contractors—working at and in support of the station. We have identified manpower savings of 251 RAF posts and 125 civil service posts through the amalgamation of RAF Lyneham and RAF Brize Norton. RAF personnel from the station will be posted to RAF Brize Norton and other RAF stations as operational and manpower requirements dictate. As far as possible, Ministry of Defence civilian personnel reduction will be achieved through natural wastage or by finding alternative employment for staff. We have been consulting with the trade unions throughout the review, and a formal period of consultation has now been completed.

I understand that the decision to close RAF Lyneham is disappointing news for the dedicated military and civilian personnel who work there, and who have done such excellent work to support operations over many years. I recognise, too, the disappointment that will be felt in the local community. The impact on the local economy was not overlooked in the review; it was and is an important consideration, and we will work with all the relevant agencies to ensure that the impact of the closure is minimised.

Airspace considerations, which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire raised, formed part of the strategic review that underpinned the original decision to collocate air transport and air refuelling assets at RAF Brize Norton. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that while there are no airspace implications that would have precluded the move, we continue to assess the implications of the expansion of RAF Brize Norton to ensure that the best use is made of the available airspace.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of infrastructure capacity. Infrastructure enhancements to support the post relocation and future fleets at RAF Brize Norton are well in hand, and the necessary development will continue over the next three years. One of the key infrastructure projects is the expansion of the aircraft parking area, which will substantially increase the ability of Brize Norton to handle increased numbers of aircraft at the same time. It will enable the transfer of the C-130J capability from RAF Lyneham and will support the introduction of both the A400M and the future strategic tanker aircraft. Out of a maximum total of 70 aircraft that will be based at Brize Norton once the new fleets are introduced, a significant number will be deployed at any one time to support current or future operations, take part in routine training activity, or undergo maintenance away from the station. We assess that the expanded aircraft parking area and other improvements will be sufficient to cope with the demands of the future fleets that will be based at the station.

The Programme Future Brize aims to provide a future strategic and tactical air transport and air-to-air refuelling base and airport of embarkation that delivers excellence in rapid global mobility and offers greater capacity, flexibility and efficiency than current arrangements. A significant number of key benefits will flow from the programme, including reduced costs and manpower liability, greater airport of embarkation capacity following the development of the freight handling facility at Brize Norton, improved training through the development of a C-130J training mission rehearsal facility, which will be expanded in the future to incorporate collective training facilities for the A400M force, along with the development of other training facilities at RAF Brize Norton.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the issue of terrorist threats. Careful consideration to the potential risks involved was given when coming to the decision to base all air transport and air-to-air refuelling assets at RAF Brize Norton. It was decided that there was no strategic reason why all the aircraft could not be based at one station. It is highly unlikely that any attack could compromise the ability to operate the fleets based at Brize Norton. For example, the length of the runway at Brize Norton is such that it is unlikely that it would be damaged to such an extent that it would be impossible to use.

The issue of diversions was also raised. If RAF Brize Norton were to become unavailable for any reason, there are a number of suitable airfields to which aircraft could be diverted or from which they could operate.

The capital cost of relocating the RAF C-130 Hercules fleet from RAF Lyneham to RAF Brize Norton is currently estimated to be some £60 million. That sum should be fully offset by the savings in running costs within the first four years. As I said earlier, I will write to the hon. Gentleman with further details.

Both the hon. Gentleman and I commented earlier on Wootton Bassett and the issue of repatriation. I wish to pay tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett, whose dignified and respectful tribute to those killed in operations has so amply and poignantly demonstrated the debt that we all owe to those who lose their life in active service. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that repatriations will continue to be held at RAF Lyneham until August 2011, when, on current plans, they will transfer to RAF Brize Norton. Appropriate facilities to support bereaved families and the dignity of the repatriation ceremony are to be provided as part of the overall development of that station.

In conclusion, despite the very significant increase in the defence budget since 1997, the pressures on our finances are acute. Operations in Afghanistan are our main effort and must take priority. The package of measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before Christmas reflected that priority, including the decision to procure the additional Chinooks and the seventh C17. That makes it all the more crucial that we gain best value for defence in the way in which we use our defence estate. That means that sometimes tough choices have to be made and that will have an impact at a local level. I recognise that this is a difficult decision, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has argued his case. I genuinely do not believe that there is an alternative way forward. Nevertheless, given what he has proposed today, I will happily arrange to meet him in the next few weeks, but I do not want to mislead people; I am not convinced that there is an alternative way forward.