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Mr. Kevan Jones: May I try to extract a commitment from the hon. Gentleman? The Conservative party's approach to defence expenditure seems to rely on an elastic cheque book. If we were in the nightmare situation that there was a Tory Government, would they take a gamble with money and technology and actually upgrade the Sea Harrier?
Mr. Howarth: There is no technical gamble in operating the Sea Harrier at present. As we speak, the Sea Harrier is on duty with Her Majesty's forces, performing the role for which it was designedto defend the fleet and act as an interceptor. The aircraft is doing that at the moment, so there is no technical gamble to take.
Mr. Hancock: Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he still shares my opinion that no sustainable argument was made by anyone who gave evidence to the Committee for the early phasing out of the Sea Harrier? The life of the aircraft could be extended until the gap could be fully covered by the Type 45 and the upgraded equipment on the Type 42.
Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman is right. If the joint strike fighter is to have its air defence capability, it is conceded that that would be valuable for a maritime expeditionary force, but that is what will be removed.
The Government are relying on the Type 45 destroyer with its improved phased-array radar and new principal anti-air missile system to make up some of the air defence capability lost with the demise of the Sea Harrier. However, the first Type 45 is not due in service until at least 2007as the Minister acknowledgedbut we do not know whether that target in-service date will be achieved. Even that is a full 18 months after the last Sea Harrier will have disappearedassuming that the programme will be on time and that its weapons system meets the specification.
Will the Minister confirm the Defence Procurement Agency's statement that the ship will have a potential ballistic missile defence capability, using the Sampson radar? In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence denied that any Ministry of Defence studies had been made to assess the specific suitability of the Type 45 for a ballistic missile defence role. He also acknowledged:
Mr. Francois: Although the official in-service date for the Type 45 is late 2007, the vessel is a first of class. With such vessels there are often extra trials, so realistically the in-service date will be 2008 or even 2009. Can my hon. Friend therefore confirm that the gap between the Sea Harrier coming out and PAAMSthe principal anti-air missie systemsbeing available on the Type 45 could be two or even three years?
Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Type 45 is due at the end of 2007. Once it has been to sea, it will be withdrawnas my hon. Friend rightly saystothe principal anti-air missile systemsundergo further trials. It will thus not be available.
The Minister referred to the Eurofighter Typhoon. Obviously, we all welcome that aircraft. The right hon. Gentleman was entirely right to describe its virtues, although he forgot to remind the House that the Conservative Government were responsible for defining the aircraft in the first place. However, there is cross-party agreement; we are all in favour of the Eurofighter Typhoon, which will perform a valuable role.
The aircraft is costly, and there has been a delay in the programme, caused in part by collaboration with our European partners. There is a price to pay for such collaboration in terms of the difficulty of achieving partner agreements for complicated projects. However, the benefit of collaboration is that it makes it much more difficult to cancel the programme.
It is disappointing that the delivery of the first twin-seat aircraft to the Royal Air Force will I understand be in December this year and that the delivery of the first single-seat aircraft is not planned until the second half of next year. One of the problems that that creates is that those dates will run up against the introduction of the joint strike fighter.
Another example of the delays attributable to European collaboration is the A400M medium-lift transport. It is 10 years since I saw a wooden mock-up proudly displayed at the Farnborough international air show, yet we are currently little further forward. We are still in limbo as regards the engine. When will Airbus make a decision? It was due to do so at the end of this month, but our understanding from Rolls-Royce is that that is unlikely. There are technical difficulties with the 18-ft diameter propellers. The Minister will know of the difficulties encountered with the C-130J and the effects of the new propellers and engines on the aircraft's aerodynamics. What support are the Government giving for the TP400D6 engine that Rolls-Royce is developing with its European partners?
We await the outcome of a German election to know whether that project, too, will proceed. If Germany decides to pull out of the project, will it be rendered unviable? I think that the Germans are to order about 40 of the aircraft. What happens if they pull out? Will the project continue to stagger from one crisis to the next?
We welcome the decision to order Bowman, which was a good example of the Government making a hard decision when a procurement programme had run into difficulties. The Government cut their losses, demonstrating the value of not reinventing the wheel and, where appropriate, of buying something off the shelf that does the job. Bowman is a vital part of the communications system, replacing Clansman. Its secure voice service, secure data messaging and automatic position location navigation recording system should add significantly to command and control operations. As Sir Jock said to the Committee on 1 May, the prospects of getting it in service in 2004 are reasonable. The Minister is holding to that in-service date of 2004, which is good news.
On communications, the Minister referred to "network-centric" activities. I am not entirely clear what that is about, although the Minister gave a good explanation. Much has been made of that philosophy applying to modern military activity. In so far as I understand the term, it is right that proper weight should be applied to developing systems that will enhance the dissemination of information, enabling commanders to acquire information quickly, to make better-informed decisions equally speedily and to strike surgically.
The Ministry of Defence is looking at the application of unmanned aerial vehicles to contribute to that development under the Watchkeeper programme. We welcome that and urge the Government to move swiftly, and not repeat the long-drawn-out process by which its predecessor, Phoenix, arrived. As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) said, we believe that it is imperative that the equipment is entirely compatible and interoperable with our partner nations, particularly the United States.
The Minister referred to the need to buy the best, and not necessarily British. All of us believe that we can buy British and best in nearly every case, but that will not always be so. [Interruption.] I am agreeing with the Minister; he does not need to worry. Actually, he probably does need to worry if I am agreeing with him. The Spike missile systemthe new light forces anti-tank guided weapons systemis produced by Israel. If the British Government feel that that is the best system on offer, they should not withhold it from British troops.