DEFENCE AIRFIELDS REVIEW (FRONT BENCH) – 17 November 2005
Response to Ministerial Statement
Dr Julian Lewis: I thank the Minister (Adam Ingram) for giving me advance notice of the Statement. I would have thanked the BBC for the even-more-advanced notice that it would have given me had I been up at 6 a.m. to read its online version, but sadly I was still fast asleep and unaware that a Statement would be made.
The central points of the Statement are uncontentious. It is obviously sensible that the new Nimrods should primarily be focused on the base where the existing Nimrods have been deployed successfully for so long. It is also obviously sensible that the new Joint Combat Aircraft should be focused on one of the bases where the Tornados have similarly been stationed for so long. There are, however, some undercurrents to this Statement about which we must be concerned – most importantly the resiling from the earlier, pretty firm commitment that the JCA would have two bases.
What does that tell us about future orders for the JCA? Does it suggest that in fact, as in so many other defence projects, when those orders come to fruition they will be found to be quantitatively much smaller than was originally promised and intended?
What does it tell us also about the thinking that is going on whereby numerous RAF bases appear to be scheduled for contraction? We heard that expression a couple of times in the Statement in the context of "wider estate rationalisation". I have reason to believe that St. Mawgan will not be the last base to close, by any means. It is clear from the Statement that the reason that the choice was made not to put the Nimrods with the ISTAR Nimrods, but to keep a separate base, was not a strategic but an economic choice.
My primary question for the Minister is this: what consideration has been given to the nature of the threats that will face us in the short, the medium and the long term? In the short and medium terms, there is the prospect of a terrorist threat. What happens if a terrorist attack is successful on an RAF base in which all the facilities for one particular type of function have been concentrated?
In the medium to long term, we have to face up to the prospect, incredible though it may seem at the moment, that we might face a major war of a more conventional nature with a more conventional Power. What prospect is there of the RAF being able to survive if its bases are vulnerable to attack because each individual role carried out by each separate part of the RAF is focused on a single site that, if put out of action, could mean that the RAF lost that function completely?
I turn briefly to some specifics. What is the future of the air-sea rescue function currently operating out of St. Mawgan? What assessment has been made of the effect on the local economy? What are the implications for the future of RAF Leeming? Reading between the lines of the Statement, I would be a little concerned if my job depended on its having a long-term future.
What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office on the security implications of the move towards reducing the number of bases so that more and more eggs are carried in fewer and fewer baskets? What assessment has been made, on a strategic basis, of the long-term military threat facing this country?
Today's announcement has some central sensible elements, but it must be seen in the context of a continued hollowing out of the Royal Air Force, with the closure of Lyneham announced less than two months after the Prime Minister had told my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) that it would have an assured future. As a result, heavy-lift equipment is now concentrated solely at a single base. Three Tornado squadrons have been scheduled for the future instead of the five called for by the Strategic Defence Review. It has been announced that the Jaguar is to go out of service two years earlier than would be required if the Typhoon were able smoothly to take over its functions.
In themselves, the announcements contain sensible elements, but as part of a wider picture they give us great cause for concern.