7 JULY 1967, Page 2

On not taking no for an answer

The British aircraft industry has featured prominently in the dowry which Mr Wilson and his colleagues have offered to bring into Europe. But, after the French withdrawal from the Anglo-French Variable Geometry aircraft, there is not going to be much of it left. Mr Denis Healey must regret his rash announcement in the 1966 Defence Review that the AFVG was 'both operationally and industrially . . . the core of our long-term aircraft programme.'

In reality it was always a fragile vehicle. For the purposes for which the British and French governments wanted the AFVG were never reconciled. The French wanted an interceptor aircraft for use in Europe; we wanted a strike-reconnaissance aircraft primarily for use outside Europe. Mr Healey claims that there was agreement on the specification and on the costing. He would have done better to recall his own criticisms of Conservative attempts to recon- cile the conflicting specifications for aircraft for our own armed forces. The budgetary difficulties which the French invoked* arose precisely because of the additional features incorporated in the AFVG to enable it to perform different functions for the two coun- The 'project-study' of an all-British VG aircraft which the Government has now announced is no more than a device to gain time and save face. There are now only two courses. We could increase our dependence on and long-term indebtedness to the us air- craft industry by filling the gap left by-the AFVG with still more purchases of Fl I Is. Alternatively, we could revise the specifica- tion and plump for an aircraft with a Euro- pean role.

An attempt to replace the French par- ticipation in the AFVG with the Germans, the Dutch and the Italians on the same specifica- tion or something like it would only run into the same difficulties. If we really do need aircraft for use in Asia in the later 1970s, we shall have to buy them from the Ameri- cans and we shall have to maintain the bases from which to operate them. If we do not intend to maintain these bases, 'then the way is open for successful cooperation, between the aircraft industries of western Europe. And in that case the best course would be to refuse 'to take no for an answer' from the French: once this country had shed the illusion of a "peacekeeping' role the con- flict between British and French aircraft specifications would disappear.