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Heavy Lift Capability

Volume 503: debated on Monday 11 January 2010

7. What progress has been made on developing a heavy lift capability; and if he will make a statement. (309571)

Since the last strategic defence review, which identified the requirement for strategic lift, we have made a lot of progress on this front. Six C-17s are currently in service together with the 24 C-130Js and 14 C-130Ks. We signed a contract for a further seventh C-17 in December 2009. As the House knows, we are also on contract for the delivery of 25 A400Ms. That project has run into well documented difficulties, and we are in the process of re-examination with partner nations and the firm of possible ways forward.

Of course there is a great demand for the A400M across the world. It is a much-needed aircraft, but we also need deep maintenance of that heavy lift capability, which ought to take place at either Warton or Woodford. Will the Minister look to ensure that the tanker programme and all the heavy lift can have deep maintenance that is done in the north-west?

If and when we have sorted out the problems of the A400M—and we have official and ministerial meetings on that subject later this week—we will need to focus on the support arrangements, and at that point I will certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend says.

Considerable concerns exist about the looming capability gap between the end of the C-130Ks and the arrival of the much delayed A400M. Will one additional C-17 really plug that capability gap?

The answer to that question is no it will not entirely, but we are taking other measures, including improving infrastructure at Brize Norton, increasing contractor support, which will give us greater availability of the C-130Js, building a new hangar and so forth. I am advised that the measures we are taking will, in combination, maintain the existing air bridge capability.

Helicopters in Afghanistan provide an essential capability due to the unforgiving terrain and the dual threat from IEDs and mines to our troops. However, in 2004, the current Prime Minister as Chancellor cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion. Over the weekend, it was suggested in leaked letters that that cut was against the direct advice of the then Secretary of State. Will the Minister confirm that those letters exist, and will he release them to the public to save us the trouble of submitting a freedom of information request in order to get to the bottom of a matter that has hugely impacted on the safety of our forces?

First, I was not around in 2004—[Laughter.] I was about to say “in my present capacity”, and I have certainly not seen any letter of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Secondly, of course helicopters are vital to operations in Afghanistan. I remind the House that we have doubled the number of helicopters there since 2006, and that we are in the process of increasing helicopter numbers substantially. This summer there will be 50 per cent. more helicopters in theatre than there were in the summer of 2009. That is a remarkable achievement. If Opposition Front Benchers were not so utterly churlish and inclined merely to play party politics with important issues such as this, they would acknowledge those dramatic facts.