Robert leads debate on Defence Aerospace Industrial Strategy

Robert said, "It is a pleasure to follow so many Members who have spoken with such passion and knowledge on this topic, about which all of us on both sides of the House are dedicated. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for having co-sponsored it with me. I refer the House, too, to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

"In 1940, the RAF realised that it was going to need new aircraft and asked North American to look at designing one, and it became the legendary P-51 Mustang. That went from request to first flight in 148 days, and it is fairly trite to say that we cannot do that any longer. That is why I would like this topic to be considered seriously by the Government.

"We must think about the kind of capability we will need in the future: what it is going to be, where it is going to come from, what the Air Force needs, and how we are going to get it. The story since 1940—through the period of decline, in many ways, of the individuality of the British aircraft industry—is quite a sad one, and I shall give two examples of what we should try to avoid.

"In the ’60s, there were three V bombers: there were three different aircraft industries competing, with three excellent designs. Why did we have three excellent designs competing for the same space, with the result that we now have none of those aircraft industries existing on their own?

"The Harrier was probably the last great all-British aircraft that we designed, which we sold to the Americans —the AV-8A. We then looked at having an advanced Harrier but ended up pulling out of our own programme. There were a number of reasons for that. Cost was one; the RAF only wanted 60, which was not enough for the ​amount of input required. Therefore, we ended up, albeit a joint programme, essentially buying back from the Americans an anglicised Harrier. The AV-8B—the GR5, GR7 and GR9 we have seen throughout the ’80s and ’90s—was really an anglicised American aircraft. That is what I want to avoid—seeing brilliant British industry, brilliant British skills and brilliant British technology not having the input it needs through a lack of looking strategically at where we are going to go."

Graham P Jones: "The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. Will he add that the Typhoon began on the drawing-board in 1984 and came into service in 2003? Does that not highlight precisely the problem?"

Robert continued, "The hon. Gentleman is right. Typhoon, the F-35 and, in my constituency, the A400M have all had a gestation period of between 20 and 30 years, depending on how we cut the initial date. In that case, we need to be looking at what will replace the Typhoon when it is out of service in 2040. It is counterintuitive when we have not got joint strike fighter F-35 in service yet, but we need to consider what will replace it as we are looking now.

"Although that is what we must start doing, I do not want us all to become, as we tend to become, fixated on fast jets and on the strike aircraft, because we also have to look at trainers and transport aircraft. We have already referred to the Hawk and we will have to consider that in this mix. I want us to have ambition for aviation, as we all do; I want to see where the fast jet capability will come from in the future, and what will be the transport aircraft in the future, so we know what will be replacing in due course the A400M and the C-17—the Hercules will probably be long gone by then.

"We just also think about what we are likely to need. As we all know, it is very inefficient to send a Type 45 destroyer to carry out light patrol activities in the Caribbean when we could be sending a patrol boat. Likewise, if we want a show of force, do we really want to send an F-35 to support troops when there is little or no air threat coming back from the other side? Could we perhaps look at what the Americans are doing? They are considering a light attack aircraft competition at the moment. Could we be doing that? I do not know the answer to that—it is something that the Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Defence will have to consider—but my point is that we have to look at what we are going to need, how we will go about getting it and what the capability is, and then to go forward and look at it from there. We cannot do that unless we have an ambition for aviation.

"I have concentrated on other matters, but that is not to take away from the points that others have made about jobs in the industry. There are lots and lots in my constituency who depend on such jobs—at Thales, Boeing, Airbus, RAF Brize Norton and AirTanker, and also at Airbus helicopters near my constituency. I could go on and on. This is all terribly important as well. I am grateful to have had this short time in which to speak, and I hope that I have made my point with force. I should like us to have an aerospace strategy, so that we know where we are going and the ambition for aviation that we all want to see."

Read this debate in full here.