[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 100th anniversary of the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Henry, and it is an honour to have secured this debate, as we are heading into a year of celebrations in 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the Royal Air Force. I would like to use this debate today to celebrate the contribution that the Air Force has made to our national life, to mark some of its sacrifices and achievements over the last 100 years and to mark how far we have come. I would also like to spend some time looking at the reasons why we have an independent Air Force, as well as the development of air power.
Today, we mark a slightly earlier anniversary than the centenary of the Royal Air Force, which is the centenary of the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917. It received Royal Assent and became law on 29 November 1917, and its centenary is next week. That Act created an Air Force and the Air Council and was a recognition of the growing importance of air power in defence, with the Air Force itself—the world’s first independent air force—coming into being on 1 April 2018. Of course, this is of particular significance to a number of hon. Members who have Air Force bases or Air Force contingents in their constituencies. I am honoured to represent Royal Air Force Brize Norton, which is the largest base in the Royal Air Force, the sole embarkation point for British troops and the centre of the Air Force’s transport fleet.
It is only right to use this anniversary to reflect on the illustrious history of the Royal Air Force, how its role has changed and what role it will continue to play in the future. The RAF is holding many events over the next year to celebrate the anniversary and I would like to think that this debate might be a start point, or a launch pad, if you will, Sir Henry. Without the work that went on in the years preceding 1918, we would not have had the Act or the Air Force that we now have.
One of the things that is quite striking is how quickly air power became important. It was only nine years before the Royal Air Force came into being that an American named Samuel Franklin Cody made the first officially recognised aeroplane flight in Britain. He went a staggering distance of 1,390 feet in a bamboo and canvas biplane known as British Army Aeroplane No. 1. As any hon. Member who has flown in a light aircraft —certainly anyone who has flown in a Tiger Moth, which I have had the honour of doing—will realise that these were true pioneers. The technology was very unsafe in the early days; there were not really any safety requirements at all. The casualty rate was very high. The bravery of those early pioneers cannot be overstated.
That rapid period of innovation, attracting the technological white heat of its day, was undoubtedly sped along by the first world war, which gave the opportunity that warfare often sadly does for practice and experimentation in aviation and technology. Without that, it is possible that the development of military aircraft would have been set back many years.
In the late 1880s various countries had experimented with balloons, but very few were convinced of their promise in warfare. The French had used some in their revolutionary war, but even then it was only for observation. Even the great Napoleon had not foreseen the effect that aircraft would later have. In 1878, the first Army Balloon School was established in Woolwich, and the balloon factory, which went on to become the Royal Aircraft Factory, was founded four years later in Farnborough. Although there were early adopters in Britain, which is something that we should all be proud of, they were slow to recognise the full potential of air flight.
Balloons were soon overshadowed by aircraft. Heavier-than-air flight was slow off the ground in Britain—if hon. Members will pardon the unintentional pun—and requests for funding, such as from the Wright brothers, to continue experimentation were denied by the Treasury, which at the time could not see the application of the new technology. However, individuals continued to push forward, design aircraft and push the envelope of what was then technologically possible.
In 1911, the War Office changed its thinking and expanded the Balloon Section into the Air Battalion, creating Britain’s first military unit equipped with heavier-than-air craft. It was not its own branch—at the time there were only 11 men in the Army and eight in the Navy. Even with the creation of the Royal Flying Corps in 1912, many remained sceptical about the practical applications of air power.
There is a famous quote from those early years just before the outbreak of the first world war, when General Haig is alleged to have said:
“I hope none of you gentlemen is so foolish as to think that aeroplanes will be usefully employed for reconnaissance purposes in war. There is only one way for commanders to get information by reconnaissance, and that is by the cavalry.”
To be fair to Haig, at the time it was probably a fair statement. They were dealing with incredibly unreliable aircraft that could only fly in good weather and had very short endurance. Clearly, their limits at the time were significant, but that view quickly changed, because the Royal Flying Corps made a critical contribution to the early stages of the first world war.
As early as 22 August 1914, Captain Charlton and his pilot, Lieutenant Wadham, observed, crucially, the 1st German army’s approach towards the flank of the British Expeditionary Force, which allowed Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal French to realign his front and save the Army around Mons. The next day, the RFC found itself fighting in the battle of Mons; two days after that, on 25 August, it gained its first air victory, when a German Taube reconnaissance aircraft was shot down. In the great retreat from Mons, the Corps fell back to the Marne, where the RFC again proved its value by identifying von Kluck’s 1st army’s left wheel against the exposed French flank, which enabled French forces to make an effective counter-attack at the battle of the Marne.
So it is clear that, within years, the contribution of the Royal Flying Corps was hugely significant and contributed to the saving of the British Expeditionary Force in the early days of the war and to the stabilisation of the front. Of course, the war degenerated into trench warfare, but at the time it was a saving grace from an advancing and apparently nearly victorious German army. That is shown by the first official dispatch from Sir John French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, on 7 September, which said:
“I wish particularly to bring to your Lordships’ notice the admirable work done by the Royal Flying Corps under Sir David Henderson. Their skill, energy, and perseverance has been beyond all praise. They have furnished me with most complete and accurate information, which has been of incalculable value in the conduct of operations. Fired at constantly by friend and foe, and not hesitating to fly in every kind of weather, they have remained undaunted throughout. Further, by actually fighting in the air, they have succeeded in destroying five of the enemy’s machines.”
All of that was only years after the first powered flight.
With the advent of trench warfare, the development of air photography and the development of air-to-ground wireless technology, the reconnaissance role for aircraft was established and was invaluable. The role evolved into aerial fighting once it was realised that it was possible to stop the enemy carrying out similar reconnaissance.
At that time there were two branches of the military air force—the Royal Flying Corps, which was Army, and the Royal Naval Air Service, which was, as the name suggests, part of the Royal Navy. Broadly put, the Royal Flying Corps concentrated on supporting the Army in France, while the Royal Naval Air Service concentrated on defending fleet bases, from which evolved the requirement of home defence—taking on the Zeppelin airships and, later in the war, the German Gotha bombers.
The weakness of that disjointed approach was highlighted in 1917, and we can see how quickly events moved from the military events of 1917 through to the Act we are commemorating today and the formation of the Royal Air Force 100 years ago next year. In the summer of 1917, 72 tonnes of bombs fell within a one-mile radius of Liverpool Street station, and the aircraft of both the RFC and the RNAS were unable to take the fight to the German Gotha bombers. Around the same time, there was a great loss of life in Folkestone caused by the use of the same bombers.
Questions were asked here in the House. The Prime Minister at the time, David Lloyd George, asked the South African General Jan Smuts to study the problem and come up with a report to the Cabinet, which became the famous Smuts report.
The problem was fairly easy to understand when we look at what Jan Smuts found. Fighter defences were provided by the RFC and the RNAS. The Army provided the heavy anti-aircraft and the Royal Naval Air Service provided the small mobile ones. Local authorities provided air-raid warnings and civil defence measures. Clearly, there was inefficiency when there were two branches of the military actively competing with each other for aircraft types and engines at a time of scarce resources. There was clearly a need for a unified approach.
Extraordinarily, a Joint Air Committee had been established just before the war, but it ceased to meet when the war broke out, at a time when perhaps it ought to have been meeting more often rather than less. In 1916 a Joint War Air Committee was formed, but again made insignificant progress, which led to the Smuts report of 1917. In due course the Act made its way through the House, resulting in the 1917 Act, which we commemorate today and next week.
It was the public outcry after attacks on domestic areas of Britain in Folkestone and London that provided the political impetus for the formation of the Royal Air Force, but at the same time we saw the growth of the concept of air power, which is another thing I want to highlight today. The Army had seen the Flying Corps, as Haig’s comments suggest, as a form of airborne cavalry, there for moving quickly, for reconnaissance and for light, quick attacks. The Navy had largely concentrated on home defence to protect its bases, but little thought was given to how air power might be used in a strategic context: to attack the enemy’s ability to make war or to attack formations before they came into battle, or to attack industrial capacity and target supply lines.
The Royal Naval Air Service had made some strides during 1916 and 1917, but there was no overall strategic concept, which is precisely what was needed. An independent Air Force that was not pulled towards the Navy’s or the Army’s priorities, but was able to look at air power in a strategic, independent context was what was needed, and that is what we had—the first independent Air Force in the world, and also the most powerful, with more than 290,000 personnel and 23,000 aircraft in 1918. In a stark shift to the words of General Haig before the war, General Jan Smuts said:
“There is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use.”
From world war one to today we have had an incredible, almost unbelievable speed of technological advance. The days of dogfights over the trenches are long gone, but the years immediately after the first world war saw intense political pressure to break up the Royal Air Force and to reabsorb its constituent parts into the Navy and the Army—something that the Air Force understandably resisted. It did so in two ways by showing its relevance. The first was to be almost a colonial policeman. Whereas in the past the Army would be sent out to go and visit far-flung parts of the empire, the Air Force could do that more cheaply and more quickly. That enabled people to say that politically there was still a purpose to the Air Force. The second, which I will come to in a moment, was the concept of strategic bombing, which is still the most controversial aspect of the second world war from the allied perspective.
Of course, the RAF’s finest hour was also Britain’s. I pay tribute to what was not only an extraordinary military force, but perhaps the most strikingly multinational force in military history. There was rapid expansion of the Air Force prior to and during the second world war. British Commonwealth countries sent enormous numbers of people to be trained to fly in the RAF, either within existing squadrons or within their own. By the end of the war the Royal Canadian Air Force had contributed more than 30 squadrons to serve in RAF formations and a quarter of Bomber Command’s personnel were Canadian.
The Royal Australian Air Force represented about 9% of all RAF personnel who served in the European and Mediterranean theatres. Famously the United States, before entering the war, sent personnel who served as part of the Royal Air Force’s Eagle squadrons. They were people who volunteered to come to fight for the cause of freedom in democracy’s hour of need. It is an extraordinary record.
It is most striking when we look at the statistics for Bomber Command: approximately 55,000 were lost in the second world war, which is the same as the number of officers lost in the British Army in the first world war. Of those 55,000, 72% were British, 18% were Canadian, 7% were Australian and 3% were New Zealanders. The example of New Zealand is extraordinary when we consider the size of that then newly independent country. The sacrifice made by the people from New Zeeland serving in the Royal Air Force was absolutely extraordinary given the size of the country.
Famously in the Battle of Britain in 1940, the RAF, supplemented by two Fleet Air Arm squadrons along with Polish, Czech, French and many other pilots from countries all over the world, defended the skies over Britain in their Spitfires, Hurricanes, Blenheims and Defiants against the numerically superior German luftwaffe. In what is perhaps the most prolonged and complicated air campaign in history, the Royal Air Force contributed decisively to the delay and ultimate cancellation of Operation Sealion, which was Hitler’s plan for an invasion of these islands. This was an extraordinary feat of bravery against incredible odds, but what is often overlooked is the fact that Fighter Command offered the finest opponent that Nazi Germany had then faced. I am keen to make this point now: the lessons of 1917 had been learned, so there was a unified command structure, early warning, radar, a proper battle plan, and the Royal Air Force Fighter Command that defended Britain in 1940 was a first-rate military fighting machine, a league away from what we had in 1917. It is an extraordinary story.
The force was also strikingly egalitarian. The Auxiliary Air Force squadrons were supplemented by the Volunteer Reserve, in which I am proud to say my grandfather served, with sergeant pilots and officers promoted from the ranks, the Air Force being then, as it is now, an extraordinary engine for social mobility and a vehicle for those whose ambition was limited only by their skill and determination.
In the House of Commons on 20 August, prompted by the ongoing efforts of the Royal Air Force, Prime Minister Winston Churchill not only sealed his own rhetorical reputation, but coined the epithet that will perhaps be the Royal Air Force’s for as long as men fly:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”—[Official Report, 20 August 1940; Vol. 364, c. 1167.]
I must mention the bombers at this stage, because it is a common misconception that Churchill was referring only to the fighters. He was, of course, referring to those who had taken the fight to the enemy. I mentioned my grandfather, who was in the Volunteer Reserve. He was called up at the beginning of the war and while the fight was going on above the skies of where we stand now, he was navigating his Wellington to bomb invasion barges along the ports of northern Europe and later took part in the first raid on Berlin, which caused Hitler, in a rage, to direct Goering to take attacks away from Fighter Command’s airfields and on to London. Although that was a tragedy for the civilian population, it meant that Fighter Command had a chance to get back to full strength. That is a good example of how someone from any walk of life could play a great role in history.
Throughout the rest of the war, the Air Force carried out every role imaginable: coastal defence, convoy protection, resupply, and the mostly hotly contested issue of the war years—the strategic bombing campaign. Perhaps today is not the time to debate that, but from a military perspective it is undeniable that for many years only the RAF had the ability to take the war to the enemy at a time when Britain was at bay. From a political perspective, the need for a strategic bombing force grew out of the way that the Air Force was created, through the parliamentary debates leading up to 1917, to prove that there was a need for an independent, strategic Air Force, rather than a tactical air support force.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Will he also reflect on the fact that the Air Force developed one of the first precision bombing missions in the form of the Dambusters raid? Of course, the last surviving British Dambuster, Johnny Johnson, was once a Torbay councillor.
I am grateful for that excellent intervention; I was not aware that Johnny Johnson was a Torbay councillor. He was the pioneer of what would, once the technology was there to do it, become the way that the RAF operated—through the precise targeting of strategic objectives. Of course now that is entirely the way the RAF operates, but what is striking about his time is that whereas now we have technology, the technology used by the Dambusters was extremely basic—it was essentially basic geometry and physics.
Post-war, the RAF was called on to go to the aid of people against whom it had fought only shortly before—the besieged people of Berlin, in the Berlin airlift. It is moving, in reading about the Berlin airlift, to realise what gratitude there was to the RAF only a few years after that most terrible of conflicts. In the ’50s and ’60s, the RAF was the carrier of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, with the V-Force, and the famous fighter types, such as the first Lightning, showcased the very best of British engineering, much as the Red Arrows and the Tornado, Typhoon and F-35 Lighting II do today.
The RAF today is the world’s first and most famous independent air force. It has a brand that is recognised throughout the world as signifying quality, courage, adaptability, bravery and innovation. Next year gives us a wonderful opportunity to commemorate 100 years of extraordinary skill, sacrifices and achievement, to celebrate the professionalism and dedication of today’s RAF and to inspire future generations by telling its unique story. The RAF 100 campaign kicks off next week on 29 November, commemorating the Royal Assent to the Act with a reception in Speaker’s House. The national “Never Such Innocence” arts competition has been launched, along with the RAF Youth/STEAM programme for science, technology, engineering, arts and design, and mathematics this autumn.
We can look forward to a full programme of events next year, all over the country. I encourage all hon. Members to look for their nearest one. There will be a tour of historic aircraft and a centenary service in Westminster Abbey, followed by a parade in the Mall and mass flypast, which I am promised will be a spectacle unparalleled in modern times, with a global audience of millions. That will do what the Air Force has always done—it will reinforce the UK’s position at the forefront of defence aviation excellence and inspire the next generation.
The event will show us just how far we have come. Where once we had canvas and wood, we now have high-tech composites. Where once the skill required for flying was horsemanship, now a degree in engineering is perhaps more helpful. Where once we had an all-male service, now the RAF is the first service to allow women to serve in all branches. It is a service where everyone, from all walks of life, is welcome and is helped to fulfil their potential. We have an Air Force where training is conducted jointly with the Army and Navy, where appropriate, and where the F-35 Lightning will be operated jointly by the Army and Navy alike. Above all, where once an air arm was a novelty, now no commander would countenance a contested battle space without the control of the air. In the past 100 years the RAF, and the understanding of the practice of air power, have come of age; and that all began 100 years ago, here in Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I shall keep my remarks rather brief, as I must return to the Chamber in the not-too-distant future. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing the debate. There is of course a link between our constituencies, in that Torbay has just offered the freedom of the borough to RAF Brize Norton, in recognition of the long links between the RAF and Torquay and Paignton—in particular, going back to world war two, when many of our hotels were requisitioned as hospitals for those injured in the fighting.
As I mentioned in my intervention, there are other links. As a teenager I met Johnny Johnson, who has been given an honour to recognise him and that whole generation, and in particular that squadron of heroes who trained hard and operated in absolute secrecy before taking on the most famous and iconic mission that the RAF—or certainly Bomber Command—engaged in during world war two. There is a story about one of his comrades being carpeted for having rung to tell a girlfriend he would not be able to make the cinema that night. When he asked “What should I have done?” the answer was “Simple. You should have left them there. They would have worked out after about an hour that you weren’t coming. When you next met them, you should have told them, ‘There’s a war on,’ and that you cannot tell them why, and that’s it.” That was the sort of sacrifice that all of them were making, and the sort of professionalism that they had to show.
The RAF today is as relevant as it was in 1917, when Parliament voted to create it. Yesterday the first RAF aircraft to land in Argentina for some time took vital equipment there, in the hope of being able to help to rescue the submariners who may be trapped at the bottom of the sea. That shows the adaptability of the RAF—it has the ability to get resources to a country where they are needed. Similarly, they provided support to our overseas territories where, after an airport had effectively been destroyed by a hurricane, they could land, secure the base and make it ready to receive further shipments.
The RAF is a force that epitomises the highest level of professionalism, but it is not only a question of the force that serves—there is a whole RAF family. I know from dealing with the Royal Air Forces Association group that meets at the Raffles Club in Torquay, and its chairman Steve Colhoun, that although people may leave the Air Force, it never really leaves them. There is that sense of duty and dedication, as well as the skills that they have learned, and the sense of family; there is support for those who have served, and for their families.
I hope that we can look forward to further development of the Air Force, and to its playing a key role in the next 100 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney talked about the change from canvas and wood to composites. It will be interesting to see what happens with a change from manned aircraft being the usual thing, to systems that are not autonomous but unmanned. What challenges will that present? We regularly hear discussion of what drones can do, in terms of being able to hang over targets, and their surveillance and strike capabilities, but what will be the opportunities as technology moves forward? If in the future there is something like the massed formations of world war two, it is likely that many of the aircraft will be based on a mother ship and that many will be completely unmanned. That new technology will bring challenges for policy makers, including for future space policy. In the same way, our forebears had to struggle with the fact that big guns at the mouth of the Thames would no longer protect London from enemy attack, if a roof for the fortress was not provided by the air force.
This debate is a welcome chance to recognise all those who have served, and I am pleased to have had a few moments to make a brief tribute to the many people who have served our nation with such distinction in the last 100 years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing this important debate.
It is my great privilege to represent a constituency with a long and distinguished association with the Royal Air Force, which continues to this day. I was honoured to be present earlier this month, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), at a ceremony at RAF Lossiemouth in Moray. The First Secretary of State unveiled a frontline Typhoon jet, which was renamed Sir Roderic in honour of an RAF tradition born of one family’s tragedy in 1941. I am sure that many hon. Members present for the debate who have an association with the RAF will be aware of the story of the MacRoberts, but I shall tell it briefly, as I think it is important to mention it today.
In 1941, Lady MacRobert lost two sons who flew with the RAF within six weeks of each other. Roderic was only 25 when he was killed leading a Hurricane aircraft attack on German positions in Iraq. Iain, aged 24, was declared missing in action after his Blenheim aircraft failed to return from a mission flown over Shetland. His body was never found. Their older brother Alasdair had been killed in a civil aviation accident in 1938. The response of Lady MacRobert was to buy a £25,000 Stirling bomber for the RAF, stipulating that it be called MacRobert’s Reply. In 1942, Lady MacRobert donated a further £20,000 to purchase four Hurricane fighters, which were sent to RAF operations in the middle east. Three were named after her three sons and the fourth was named after her. A succession of RAF aircraft have carried the MacRobert name ever since. I had discussions with the MacRobert Trust in Lossiemouth earlier this month, and it continues to do excellent work to this very day.
RAF Lossiemouth was on the frontline during the second world war. For instance, one officer and two aircrew members were killed on 26 October 1940, when Lossiemouth was attacked by the Luftwaffe for the first time. Several aircraft were destroyed and three hangars were damaged, and the resultant holes from the cannon fire are still visible today. The famous Dambusters squadron, which we heard about earlier, launched its raid on the battleship Tirpitz in November 1944 from Lossiemouth. The squadron returned to the base the year I was born—1983—flying Tornado aircraft, prior to being disbanded from service in March 2014.
In addition to RAF Lossiemouth, we have RAF Kinloss, which was commissioned in 1939 and served as a training establishment during the war. It provided the aircrew that defended our islands and took the fight to the enemy. More recently, Kinloss served with great distinction as a base for the Nimrod fleet, and before that the Shackletons, which patrolled our shores for many decades. Although the RAF has since departed from Kinloss, its tradition with the armed forces continues—39 Engineer Regiment has found an excellent home there.
Since the war, Lossiemouth has been a major base for the RAF, apart from a gap between 1946 and 1972 when the Fleet Air Arm operated from the base, during which time it was known as HMS Fulmar. It distinguished itself during the Gulf war in the 1990s, when Buccaneers flew regularly over Iraqi airspace on pathfinding missions. The Buccaneer force became known as the “Sky Pirates”, in reference to the maritime history of the Buccaneer. Each aircraft had a Jolly Roger flag painted on the port side, along with nose art featuring female characters. In recognition of the plane’s Scottish roots, the Buccaneers were named after famous Speyside Scotch whiskies, including Glenfiddich, Glen Elgin and Macallan—I am sure many will be happy that the Chancellor of the Exchequer continued the freeze on whisky duty yesterday—which ensured that two great Moray traditions were combined: service in our armed forces and an appreciation of some of our finest malts.
Lossiemouth is now one of the two main operating bases for the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 in the United Kingdom, and is home to three frontline units that operate the Typhoon, each of which contributes to the quick reaction alert capability, which provides continuous protection for UK airspace. The UK Government plan significant investment at Lossiemouth to accommodate the RAF’s new fleet of Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft, which are expected to enter into service in 2020.
In October 2016, when I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I was delighted to become the first ever UK politician to be offered the chance to fly in a Poseidon P-8. The predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney had been in a P-8 at the Farnborough air show but had never got into the skies in one, so I had the accolade of being the first ever UK politician to get up in the skies in one and to see at first hand the new aircraft’s capabilities. It was a great experience to see Moray from the skies and the flight deck, and to hear the RAF aircrew’s excitement at bringing that new type into service and back to RAF Lossiemouth.
So many people who come to RAF Kinloss and Lossiemouth want to stay in Moray, and a great thing for people who stay in Moray to do is to celebrate our history. There is no better way of doing that and showing how much we appreciate our connection with the Royal Air Force than through our excellent visitor attraction, Morayvia. Morayvia is a charity set up in 2011 by former RAF officers and civilian enthusiasts who wanted to preserve the last remaining Nimrod at Kinloss—the XV244. Since then, the group has grown from the original board, and now has more than 150 members from around the world. The project goes from strength to strength. A visitors centre has been established at the former primary school at Kinloss, and it has been transformed into an outstanding visitor attraction for local people and visitors. Its four-star rating from VisitScotland is testament to the many members and volunteers of Morayvia, who have supported that active organisation, and an extremely active board of directors led by chairman Mark Mair.
Morayvia has many fantastic exhibits, including Sea King, Wessex and Dragonfly search-and-rescue helicopters. They sit alongside an Antonov An-2 biplane and cockpits of Canberra, Vampire and Jet Provost aircraft, which visitors can sit in and experience. Visitors are shown around by former aircrew who either flew in or worked on them. Those former servicemen are Morayvia’s greatest asset. They share their interest, enthusiasm and passion for the aircraft and the RAF with future generations who visit in significant numbers every year.
The pride that all of us in the UK have—it is fitting that we describe our pride as we come to the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force—in our connection with the Royal Air Force is shared by all of us in Moray, given our historical association with the RAF. It is clear that there is great satisfaction to be had in knowing that our relationship with the Royal Air Force not only has been great in years past but will continue for many decades to come.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for organising it. I grew up a few miles from RAF Cosford in Shropshire. My childhood was spent looking up to the Shropshire skies and seeing the aircraft training, and visiting the wonderful museum that the RAF created at Cosford.
I have the privilege of representing Newark, a border town between Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. In our part of the world, although we do not have the hills of the Welsh marches, we have big skies—“big skies and big hearts”, as local people say in Lincolnshire. When we look up to those skies today, we see all sorts of aircraft representing the full history of the Royal Air Force, from the battle of Britain memorial flight that visits our fairs and fetes in every village over the summer, to the Red Arrows down the road at Scampton, to training flights from RAF Syerston in my constituency and Cranwell—one of the homes of the Royal Air Force. Typhoons and Tornadoes train at RAF Coningsby but are also on active service, keeping the United Kingdom safe.
Newark has been at the heart of the RAF story from its very beginnings. When T. E. Lawrence was a young trainee officer down the road at Cranwell, he would come cycling for a good night out in Newark. There is an excellent exhibition at Newark Civil War Centre at the moment, where people can see the motorbike on which he cycled into the town. He used to give money to a local lady—Ruby Bryant—for looking after him and his various love interests in the town. Over the years, things have not changed. Officers, cadets and members of the Royal Air Force over in Lincolnshire like to come a few miles down the road for a good night out, which Newark continues to offer.
Today, we have RAF Syerston—a station operating Wellington, Manchester and Lancaster bombers—which was once part of Bomber Command. Thanks to a £15 million fund from the Ministry of Defence, it will be the hub for training air cadets throughout the United Kingdom. Newark, like many other towns, has a proud tradition of air cadets: they were out on parade only the other day for Remembrance Sunday.
During the second world war, we had many RAF bases—at Balderton, Newark, Ossington, Newton and Winthorpe. Some of them remain; some are merely part of our rich local history. Winthorpe is now an excellent air museum, which I thoroughly recommend for anybody who happens to be in the Newark area.
Newark today is also the home of the national Polish airmen’s memorial. Anyone who comes to Newark cemetery, which has been beautifully preserved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, will find the graves of 397 brave Polish airmen. Also buried there for many years was General Sikorski, who was the general in charge of the Polish forces and, of course, one of the great heroes of the Polish people. He died in 1943 and was buried in Newark. His return in state to Poland in 1993 after the fall of the Berlin wall was one of the great occasions marking Poland’s return after an era of sad decline under communist rule. We retain those connections and the close links with the Polish community.
For us in Newark, with such a large Polish community, that war graves cemetery—only the other day we celebrated the annual All Souls’ Day service there—is a living memorial of the ties that will always bind the United Kingdom and Poland. In my constituency we will always maintain—I hope—good relations between the two integrated and respectful communities.
We have also heard today about Johnny Johnson, who was for many years a teacher in Newark and is often still seen at the Collingham agricultural show on his buggy, whizzing around and getting as much excitement and applause as the battle of Britain memorial flight always does at the end of the show. Only a couple of years ago it was my privilege to meet Johnny when Lord Hague was in Newark promoting his excellent book. I was delighted to see on 7 November that Johnny received his perhaps belatedly awarded MBE.
The community in Newark has always supported the RAF and has borne costs for doing so, such as bombings during the second world war. On 7 March 1941 a bomb was dropped on the giant Ransome & Marles factory in Beacon Hill, killing 41 local people, mostly women working in the munitions factory and producing parts for the RAF, and injuring 165 others. That was a big blow to what was then a small agricultural town.
Today hundreds if not thousands of my constituents are veterans, people who worked on the many RAF bases in Lincolnshire, loved our area and came back to settle. Many of the doors I knock on belong to people who were in the RAF—a veteran, perhaps the widow of someone who served in the RAF or a young couple, one of whom is working in the RAF.
I am in this debate on behalf of the people of Newark to salute the people and the serving men and women of the Royal Air Force. I say to the gents who prop up the bar of the Royal Air Force Association club in Newark, the memories cast of T. E. Lawrence and the servicemen and women of the past, the young cadets who are the lifeblood and future of the RAF and, above all, the thousands of men and women serving today who call my constituency their home or spent parts of their lives in it: we salute you, we thank you for your service and we wish you another 100 years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.
I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing the debate. I am sure that everything he said will be welcomed by many RAF personnel, past and present, and their families. If any of my young constituents want a quick precis of the history of the RAF, I will point them in the direction of today’s Hansard. The background he gave us was a tour de force for where the RAF has been and comes from—it was something to behold.
The RAF has always been at the forefront of technology and we can only imagine what it must have been like in 1918 when flying was a great novelty and aircraft design was very much in its infancy. Despite huge strides in that period, the RAF was still very much seen as an ancillary service to land and sea operations during the first world war. Nevertheless, it played a vital role in securing victory. The second world war, however, brought air power to maturity. The aeroplane became a decisive weapon and the outcome of land and sea operations depended on the command of the airspace and having air superiority.
Between 1939 and 1945, the RAF was at the forefront of all operations and, as we all know from our second world war history, it prevented the invasion of Britain, and supported our armed forces in north Africa, Italy, north-west Europe and the far east. The RAF fought continuously around the coast of Britain and over the north Atlantic to protect convoys, as well as in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, while carrying out countless bombing missions into the heart of the then enemy and now—for the time being—European partner, Germany.
The RAF has been on active service in, for example, the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq and has supported our ground troops. The level of support that we have had over the years has been second to none during all those campaigns. Through its expertise, the RAF has protected the lives of many of our troops. We can also celebrate the innumerable instances in which the RAF has provided humanitarian support in areas throughout the world under threat of famine or flood.
The RAF is moving into a new era with the American-built F-35 fighter jets and the recently ordered Boeing P-8 reconnaissance aircraft, and the technology of those aircraft is at the cutting edge of flight. The same can be said of the technology that enhances RAF firepower and capability in the air. That, too, is something to behold.
I cannot help but think, however, that the RAF has been let down badly by the Government, especially in that vital area for Scotland of maritime patrol aircraft. I am sure that I am not alone in the Chamber today thinking that the Government’s decision to scrap the Nimrod fleet, which operated out of RAF Kinloss, was a huge mistake and an error of judgment. In the intervening period since then we have seen a greater number of Russian submarine incursions off the north coast of Scotland—in fact, more than we had during the cold war.
I did not intervene on the hon. Gentleman earlier because we seemed to be having an extremely consensual debate. I will not dwell too much on the point, but will he also accept that despite the disappointment in 2010 about the Nimrod being scrapped, there were safety concerns? Those valid concerns about the Nimrod were expressed by aircrew and their families. The P-8 is a modern aircraft that will do a great job, as the Nimrods did previously. Now we will be covered by that important aircraft based in my constituency at RAF Lossiemouth.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about the safety of the aircraft, but we have been left with a capability gap. When the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), gave evidence to MPs last month, he described the “extraordinary increase” in submarine activity off the north of Scotland.
In the meantime, since the Nimrods were scrapped in 2010, the RAF has unfortunately had to watch from the sidelines as our coast and seaways have been protected by maritime patrol aircraft from Canada, the USA, France, Norway and other NATO allies. The Nimrods have performed that vital role since 1971, after taking over from the Shackleton aircraft. Anyone who takes pride in the RAF will be disappointed that the new P-8s, which the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) spoke of, will not be in service until beyond 2020, meaning that we will not have had full air superiority in and command of our airspace for a period of 10 years. However, this is more of a plea to the Minister, rather than a criticism, given that we are all here to celebrate the RAF in its full glory. We must be attuned to some of the threats that face us and make sure that we have continuous capability over all those areas.
Finally, we have many serving and retired personnel from the RAF in our constituencies. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I thank them all for keeping the whole nation safe for the past 100 years. I hope that decisions can be made to prepare the RAF for the times that lie ahead, keeping it at the cutting edge of technology.
I apologise once again for being a little late this afternoon, Sir Henry, thanks to the train service from Birmingham.
This has been an important and timely debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing it when there is much to celebrate about the past 100 years of the Royal Air Force. He made an important contribution to the debate, reminding us of the importance of the RAF in winning the battle of Britain, about which I will say more in a minute. He also reminded us that by the end of the first world war —by 1918, the actual centenary of the formation of the Royal Air Force—there were 290,000 personnel and a staggering 23,000 aircraft in the RAF.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who reminded us that the RAF is as relevant today as it was in 1917-18. Of course, he is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) told us about the Lossiemouth base, which is one of the most important bases for the RAF, about the Scottish roots of the RAF—I am sure that whisky is important to the RAF—and the fact that the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft are based at Lossiemouth. Then we heard from the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), who spoke with great knowledge, representing a constituency that has huge roots and an important role in the RAF. He told us of the crews and personnel who live in his area and that the Red Arrows were just down the road. I remember those English Electric Lightning aircraft from my youth, in the 1960s. I think that RAF Coningsby is very nearby, and Newark is at the heart of the RAF’s story, he said. Many thousands of veterans live in his constituency.
Labour welcomes this debate and the chance to highlight the work of the RAF during its hundred-year history. We would like to thank all those who have served or are serving in the RAF for the sacrifice and contribution that they make and have made to the defence of our nation.
On 29th November 1917, the Air Force Constitution Act received its Royal Assent. Today is the 24th, I think, so in just a few days we have the hundredth anniversary of Royal Assent.
Today is the 23rd.
That’s Virgin Trains for you. But I should not advertise.
On 1 April next year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force actually coming into existence. It was the threat of war with Germany in the 1930s that resulted in the rapid expansion of the RAF. New stations were built, new aircraft were ordered and the strength of the RAF increased from 31,275 personnel in 1933 to 264,346 by 1939. At the end of the second world war, the strength of the RAF stood at more than one million. By 1948, of course, that had dropped to less than 250,000, and two years later it was less than 200,000. By 1979, the strength of the RAF was just over 86,000 personnel. The end of the cold war and the reconfiguring of the RAF for expeditionary warfare saw a further reduction in manpower.
I will turn to one of the most important points that the hon. Member for Witney made in his opening remarks, which is the battle of Britain. As I said earlier, I am a child of the ’50s and ’60s—and probably one of the older Members in this room—and I remember many of the films of the period, such as “366 Squadron”. We were brought up on those movies. “The Dam Busters” was slightly before my time, being born in ’55, which was the year it was made, so I do not remember it opening.
Sir Henry, if you will permit me for one minute, I will share a couple of personal recollections. “The Dam Busters” was about Operation Chastise, on 16 to 17 May 1943. We all remember that it was Sir Barnes Wallis who invented the bouncing bomb, but how many of us remember some of the other people involved? I am very privileged to have as one of my closest friends the grandson of Sir Benjamin Lockspeiser, who was the co-inventor of the bouncing bomb, and who died just months before his 100th birthday in 1990. He was one of the most influential inventors of the time, and with Barnes Wallis he invented a weapon that brought the war to an earlier close than it might have had. These are the people who are often forgotten.
Benjamin Lockspeiser was honoured after the war for his role, but there are many like him who worked hard to ensure that we could win the war and stop Hitler’s Operation Sealion, which started in July 1940, from invading Britain and therefore removing the last democratic obstacle to his domination of Europe. In order to do that, he had to destroy the RAF’s ability to attack his forces. We should never forget that the RAF was outnumbered 5:1 by the Luftwaffe in both machines and men. It was the first significant strategic defeat suffered by the Nazis during the second world war. Of course, the war was to last another five years.
My late father was at that time a pupil at Brentwood School, in Essex. It was a boarding school; he had come to the country as a 12-year-old from continental Europe to escape the fascist persecution of the Jews. He was on fire duty one night in 1940 as the battle of Britain was taking place over Brentwood. Hon. Members present probably do not know that area of Essex; Brentwood School is on hill, and Warley barracks is on the next hill. The Luftwaffe used to bomb Warley barracks regularly, but sometimes it got confused and bombed the school instead. When they dropped a bomb on the cricket pavilion, the deputy headmaster said to my father, who was on duty at the time, “Let it burn; we need a new pavilion.” That was one of the stories I best remember from my father’s wartime exploits. He ended up in the RAF himself in 1945. He never told me exactly what his duties were, but I know that at one stage, after having volunteered, he was parachuted into occupied France. That is a direct, personal connection.
Many of us who are children of that era remember building the Airfix kits. I do not know how many hon. Members in this room remember those Airfix kits— I am looking round to the boys.
And the girls. Surely, the hon. Lady is not old enough to remember such things. I remember building the kits of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mosquitos out of balsa wood. I think the real aircraft were built out of balsa wood as well—those Mosquitos were very flammable, but they were extremely fast. The technologies of that time enabled the RAF to be so superior, in spite of the fact that it had fewer personnel and fewer machines —the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was the engine that powered the Spitfire. Indeed, when the film the “Battle of Britain” was made in 1968, I think, they re-enacted with original Spitfires and Hurricanes the battle over Brentwood School, which I was a pupil at, too, during that period.
The RAF is an important strand in the lives of all of us who grew up after the war in the ’50s and ’60s, and subsequently. The cost of the battle of Britain was very high. Of the nearly 3,000 air crew who fought, 544 lost their lives and of the remainder, a further 814 died before the end of the war. We should remember that not all those fighters were British. Fighter Command was a cosmopolitan mix, and some reference has been made to that this afternoon. There were 141 Poles, 87 Czechs, 24 Belgians and 13 Free French killed, who swelled the ranks of those who died fighting in the RAF as pilots and other crew in the battle of Britain and throughout the second world war.
As of October 2017, the RAF consists of 30,560 full-time, trained personnel, against a 2020 target of 31,750. The RAF as we know it today—reference has been made to this already—is at the centre of the UK’s fight against Daesh. In fact, in March this year I was privileged to visit RAF Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus with the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Akrotiri was the staging point for Operation Shader, the UK’s military campaign against Daesh. We saw just how brilliantly well the RAF works today in spite of the many pressures on it.
Another point I want to make is about equality, which other hon. Members have referred to. The Women’s Royal Air Force was formed in 1918. Although the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was disbanded in the 1920s, it was reformed in June 1939 as a result of the outbreak of the second world war. On 1 February 1949, the permanent service came into being, under its old name of the Women’s Royal Air Force. The RAF has been at the very forefront, integrating its women’s service in a meaningful way. In 1994, the WRAF ceased to exist as a women’s service when it merged with the RAF and female personnel were fully integrated on the same rates of pay and subject to the same regulations as their male counterparts.
The RAF has been consistently praised as an excellent employer for women and has been named in The Times top 50 list of employers for women on more than one occasion. Not only that, but the RAF has the largest proportion of female officers: 16.9% of regular officers and 22.7% of reserve officers are women. The current target for women in the armed forces is 15% by 2020, but the RAF plans to raise its target to 20% by 2020. The RAF also created the first female two-star military officer. Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West was the first woman since the second world war to become a non-honorary air vice-marshal or equivalent in the British armed forces, and the first to achieve that rank in the regular forces. The RAF currently has three female officers of two-star rank, compared with one in the Army and none in the Royal Navy. In September, the RAF became the first service to accept women in all roles, including close combat roles.
We have had a very good debate, and I wait to hear what the Minister has to say in conclusion. I thank the hon. Member for Witney once again for bringing this important anniversary to public attention. I hope that this is the first of many celebrations.
It is a real pleasure to respond to this interesting and informative debate. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). I am afraid there is an expectation that the hon. Member who has the job of representing Brize Norton will have to deal with and support the RAF and the armed forces as a whole. My hon. Friend does so not simply because it is his duty, but because he is passionate about it. That is reflected not only in the fact that he secured this debate but in the manner in which he illustrated his points and invited us to look at the contributions made by people in all our constituencies and across Britain in the past 100 years. The 100th anniversary of the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917 marks the beginning of a series of 100th anniversaries that I am pleased to say we will be able to enjoy over the next year and about which I will share some details.
My hon. Friend mentioned the pioneering spirit of the era, which was very much reflected in the formation of the RAF. These were dangerous forms of transport. They were really prototypes of the day. The flash to bang time—the time between the things being created as prototypes and being put into operational use—was very short indeed compared with the procurement process that we endure today, hence there were so many accidents of one form or another.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the forebears who laid the ground for our air capability and dominance. Those included the people involved in the balloon factory that was opened in 1878 and the Air Battalion, and even the generals who initially refused even to incorporate and understand the benefits of the tank. They were certainly not going to look at the skies and say, “We really need something else,” yet when the era of photography began and intelligence could be gleaned from the skies about what the Germans were up to on the battlefield, it became evident that air capability would have an interesting use. That was even before the kinetic aspect of the Air Force came into being.
My hon. Friend and others spoke about the huge loss and sacrifice that was made, and about the stoicism of individual pilots. In some cases, they paid their mess bills before they left, not knowing whether they would return the next night. Because of their commitment to duty, crews were unable to grieve and appreciate the loss of their friends until the war was over. He also mentioned Operation Sealion—that huge threat that Britain would face. Eventually, although the Air Force had lesser forces, its professionalism, capability and determination not to allow the skies to fall forced Hitler to look at other theatres of operation, namely Barbarossa in the east. By protecting UK airspace and, indeed, our land, which the Americans were able to use as a base, the Air Force allowed us to bring the war to a close. It is important to recognise the huge contribution and sacrifice that was made from the air in relation to the other components of the second world war.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), too, paid tribute to the Air Force capability in his constituency. He invited us to consider what will happen next with unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous aircraft. We are in an exciting, if perhaps curious period. We can now see those aircraft. They are very much on the horizon—they are coming. Drones are operating now. I will come on to that, but what happens to pilotless planes in the theatre of operation? The Chancellor did not mention them yesterday—he did not venture too far beyond pilotless cars—but they bring into question the ethics of warfare and the rules of engagement, given their operators’ distance from the activity. Our love of flying and the need to use the mark 1 eyeball as opposed to a camera lens mean that it will always be necessary to have manned capability—if nothing else, to show presence, status and ownership of the skies from a human perspective.
My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) spoke about the MacRobert Trust and shared an interesting story from his neck of the woods, which we will benefit from. He also mentioned RAF Lossiemouth in his constituency, which has a wonderful history and continues to make a great contribution to the armed forces as a whole. I look forward to visiting his constituency in the near future. RAF Lossiemouth is now a significant base. The quick-reaction Typhoons are there, and the P-8s will be there to provide maritime capability. I am pleased that as we reconcile the defence estate across the United Kingdom—Scotland does very well out of that—Lossiemouth will continue to be an important military hub.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) paid tribute to a variety of the historical connections of his constituency and its surrounds. He was the only hon. Member to mention the importance of air cadets. As we talk about the anniversary and the last 100 years, we must think about the next 100 years. The air cadets ensure that we embed that acorn of desire in people—that we encourage them to participate and make them want to put the uniform on. I am pleased that our cadet programme in the United Kingdom is growing, and I am very pleased that my hon. Friend raised it. He touched on Remembrance Day, where the air cadets also come in. That is our opportunity to pay tribute to and to thank, in a reverent manner, those who have fallen for our today.
My hon. Friend also spoke about General Sikorski and our commitment with our NATO allies, and about the huge contribution not just of the Polish but of other nations to us working together in the war effort. He also mentioned the Red Arrows, who are wonderful ambassadors for what our armed forces do. They operate not just in Britain, at the various air shows and displays and on commemorative days, but abroad, too. They were recently in the Gulf and elsewhere, demonstrating the capability, determination, professionalism and high standards of our pilots. Long may that continue.
A consensus had built up during the debate, but the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) just grazed the edge of that consensus in teasing us with his views on Nimrod. I remember coming into Parliament and discussing that matter. The Nimrod replacement programme had gone on for a long time. It was based on the old Comet framework; it was not working. There were then accidents, and my hon. Friend the Member for Moray is absolutely right that that aircraft needed to be looked at. Where I take issue with the hon. Gentleman is with his suggestion that we somehow lost operational capability. We continue to ensure that we keep our skies and these islands safe. If we lose one capability, it is replaced by other assets, including Type 23s, submarines, Merlin helicopters and, yes, our allies. This is part of a NATO effort, from an intelligence perspective, to keep us aware of what is happening in the Nordic seas. We therefore do work with our allies. I am pleased—and grateful that he recognised—that the P-8s will be coming online in a couple of years’ time, and they will operate from Lossiemouth.
I turn to the Act we are recognising here today, which created the Royal Air Force. It was born with a meeting of minds between two prominent political figures at the time, Prime Minister David Lloyd George and General Jan Christiaan Smuts, in response to the seemingly unopposed German air raids taking place over London in the summer of 1917. In ensuing reports, General Smuts provided a vision of a central body, independent of the Navy and indeed the Army, of professional qualified airmen, able to advise and direct operations from an air arm.
With the assent of Cabinet, the vision was enshrined in the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917, which is what we are discussing, debating and recognising here today. With the amalgamation of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force was established. From the Royal Air Force’s infancy, it was clear that the creation of the world’s premier independent air force was an inspired decision. The new service helped to seal the victory in the first world war.
Hon. Members will know of the RAF’s many crucial interventions during the second world war—we have discussed many of them today. One of those heroic endeavours in defence of the United Kingdom was during the battle of Britain, as well as in other battles. We rightly commemorate those. The few, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney mentioned, and those who supported them delivered a decisive victory and paved the way to ending a war that had gripped the world for so many years.
The RAF has always had an overseas element, and its contributions to the world stage continued during the cold war, following the second world war. The Berlin airlift is a great example of that, when it delivered essential supplies to the people of West Berlin in the first major humanitarian exercise in modern history. The RAF would go on to do many aid missions, flying around the world to provide humanitarian support.
Let us not forget what happened in 1982, in the Falklands campaign. Many of us of that age, understanding what was going on in the world, can still see those incredible pictures now of the Vulcan going down there, punching holes in the runways, and then the fantastic flotilla being able to go down. Against the odds, but because of our professionalism and the combined effort from air, sea and land, we were able not only to liberate the Falklands but to continue to defend them. That, I believe, sent a message across the world that, when we were required to do so, we would protect ourselves and our sovereign territory—and, in that case, the Islanders’ right to govern.
More recently, we have had frontline jet squadrons operating in areas across the Gulf, first in the Gulf war in 1991 and most recently against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. It is clear that they played a pivotal role, working with the coalition in the skies and training the armed forces on the ground, which allows us to look at those two countries now and say that they are free from Daesh extremism. That does not mean that it is all over in any sense, but we can be proud of the role that the RAF provided.
More recently, this September the RAF was again in operation, in the hurricane season, carrying important freight and humanitarian aid—water, rations, shelters and so on—helping to support the people and islands of the Caribbean caught up in the hurricanes. History has shown that, whether employed in campaigns or providing vital aid around the world, time and time again in the past 100 years the UK has called on the RAF’s service, and the RAF has delivered.
It is important for us to thank and recognise all those who have been involved, whose tireless endeavours have cemented the RAF’s reputation as dedicated and professional—indeed, it is exactly what the 1917 Act envisaged a hundred years ago. It is fair to say that other air forces rate themselves by comparison with the RAF—certainly the Americans do, as do our NATO allies.
I turn to the commemorations that mark the anniversary. The capstone event of the centenary celebrations will take place on 10 July 2018 in London. That will allow us to both reflect on and commemorate the sacrifices made by our brave service personnel as well as to celebrate what the Royal Air Force stands for today. A memorial service, a parade and a flypast involving more than 100 aircraft, supported by more than 1,300 service personnel, will make it a truly unforgettable event.
We should not forget that the celebration is not just by the RAF for the RAF. It is for all generations of all walks of life across the UK to participate in. From a touring display of influential RAF aircraft involving six cities across the UK, to celebratory concerts and a baton relay, historic events will take place, including that taking place at Brize Norton, which I understand my hon. Friend is already involved with.
It should be mentioned that once service personnel have done their flying, packed up and handed over their uniform, they still need to be looked after. I am pleased that that concept is not new today as we ensure that we take care of our veterans; it is something that the RAF recognised needed to be done 100 years ago as well. I pay tribute to all armed forces charities, but today particularly those connected to the Royal Air Force. The RAF Benevolent Fund was set up in the early days by Lord Trenchard in 1919 to assist airmen following the end of the first world war. Charities provide integral support to the men and women of the Air Force. Much has been said about the role of women. We should not forget that while society prevented women from taking on a combat role, because they were pilots moving aircraft to and fro as well as instructors, and they were competent in what they did, they played a vital role. On reflection, society saw their contribution in the two wars, and that changed attitudes, providing greater opportunities for employment and for parity with men in what they could do.
Of course, the RAF played a role in delivering those incredibly brave women who operated as part of the Special Operations Executive in occupied Europe. While society at the time did not think it was right for them to be on the frontline, many of them held some of the most dangerous roles in the war, and many paid the ultimate price for doing so.
One of the most moving places to go to is the Special Forces Club. It is difficult to get into, as one needs to know someone in the Special Forces to get in. However, once in there, there is a staircase where every picture that has a certain type of frame on it is of someone who was killed. The number of women in those portraits on that staircase is truly phenomenal. I therefore absolutely concur with my hon. Friend. The contribution they made to our society, doing the most difficult of tasks in another country, completely alone, is truly phenomenal. We owe them a massive debt of gratitude.
To turn to the future, we have touched on where things might go for the next 100 years and I am pleased to say that, thanks to investment—£178 billion of procurement is coming though over the next decade—we will have some state-of-the-art equipment that the RAF will be very proud of. The first 13 F-35Bs have been delivered and will become operational in 2018. We are upgrading the Typhoon so that it can take the Brimstone mark 2 missile. We have Protector, the UAV upgrade from the Reaper and Predator coming online. Watchkeeper is also proving to be a formidable asset. We have already mentioned the P-8A, a maritime aircraft that will be in Scotland in the very near future. There are exciting times ahead for the RAF and its service personnel.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) made clear, giving interesting numbers that I will not repeat, the role that women are taking on. That is worth mentioning. The RAF leads in that. We want the brightest and the best in our armed forces, and that includes the RAF. We have a target to see an increase in women in the armed forces to 20% by 2020; and it is in the RAF that they are excelling and going beyond those numbers, and that should be recognised.
I recall, during the start of the coalition against Daesh, that one of the images we received across the desk at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was of a pilot from the United Arab Emirates in the cockpit of an F-16, refuelling from an American tanker over Iraq—a female pilot. If that is happening, given all the sensitivities of that in the middle east, it shows us that there should not be a single role that women should be prevented from applying for. That is now the case right across our armed forces, but the RAF is leading the game on that and it is to be congratulated. Moving forward, we want to see not only more women in the armed forces but more people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. We should be trying to reflect the society that supports our armed forces.
Throughout its 100 years, the RAF has also sought to exploit its technological advantage. That is why we are looking to see the Lightning, the F-35, take its role at RAF Marham and the P-8 aircraft take its place at Lossiemouth as well. Allying the expertise of the RAF to state-of-the-art technology will give the RAF capability and influence far exceeding what simple numbers would imply. It is therefore fitting that we use the RAF’s centenary to focus on and support science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and to deliver the largest STEM programme of any Government Department. I stress that because it will include STEM projects across the country and offer dedicated STEM residential courses at RAF bases. The Government’s commitment to championing an interest in science and engineering in schools is clear, and the RAF is ideally placed to show young people of the United Kingdom how they can be applied in practice to deliver a modern Air Force.
Finally, the RAF recognises that the years that follow will be no less important to the Air Force than the 100 years we have discussed and reflected on today. We need to make sure that the legacy is carried forward. To ensure that it is, the RAF will build on Lord Trenchard’s founding principles of training, education and excellence to create an RAF training, education and apprenticeship system for the next century, so that we are able to deliver the next generation Air Force. Training academies are planned for RAF Cranwell and RAF Cosford to make sure that that actually happens.
I hope all hon. Members will join me in wishing the RAF well in its centenary year, and I hope all will have the opportunity to support the events around the country commemorating its sacrifices, celebrating its achievements and inspiring future generations. I was very moved by a comment made by one hon. Member about the brand itself and when we mention somebody who has served in the RAF or an event that took place in the first or second world wars. As Minister for Defence People, it has become clear to me that it is the people who matter the most in our armed forces. If we do not have the professionalism of the people, if we cannot attract the best to come in and provide the best pilots and the best people to serve, we will not have the hard power that we strive for. If we do not have the hard power, then we do not have the soft power to do what Britain does best: play a role on the international stage. Extrapolating backwards, it is critical that we keep doing our best to recruit the best to join all our armed forces. Today, we pay tribute to the RAF, what has happened over the last 100 years and what will happen over the next.
I will certainly do that, Sir Henry. I am very grateful indeed to every hon. Member who has come along and made a contribution today. I wanted to have a wide-ranging debate that looked at every aspect of the Air Force, from its foundation 100 years ago, through history, to today and indeed to the future. I think we have done so, and I am grateful to everybody who has made such wide-ranging contributions, any one of which we could have turned into an entire debate. If hon. Members will pardon me, I will spend one or two moments picking out some things that I found particularly moving.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) mentioned the whole RAF family; we must not forget the dedication and duty not only of those who serve but of their families as well. That is particularly important today as we look at the whole force concept, which is not necessarily only about people in uniform who are serving but is much wider. He also mentioned the recent visit of a Voyager to Argentina for the first time since the Falklands war, which, of course, flew from Brize Norton in my constituency.
Where else? It very much marked one of the most moving things: old adversaries becoming friends. As the Minister said, the Air Force has a real soft-power role in making that very clear. He also talked about manned and unmanned aircraft, which is very much the debate of the future.
My admiration for my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is unbounded after he managed to raise whisky and aviation in the same debate. They are not normally a pair that team up with happy results—or at least not when paired at the same time. I shall have to visit Morayvia, which sounds a wonderful place. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick)—that border town between those Air Force counties—is almost at the heart of the Air Force. He quite rightly mentioned air cadets, who are very much the future, and the role of the Polish community. I am very happy to hear how strongly commemorated that still is.
I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) for bringing us up to date with some of the current controversies, which, of course, there will always be in such important matters. I was moved by the references of the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) to films and Airfix. Although those were light-hearted comments, he made very clear how the Air Force has become part of the nation’s psyche and emotional make-up and I am grateful to him for making that clear in the way he did. He also referenced technology and the Mosquito—the old, wooden aircraft—which was at the forefront of technology and was, for a time, the fastest aircraft in the world. That was the technology then; we have different technology now.
I am grateful to the Minister for dealing with a large number of very important things, including the importance of STEM, humanitarian input—not only in Argentina but with the recent hurricane relief, which, again, came from Brize Norton in my constituency—and the professionalism and dedication shown in the battle of Britain, with the incredible disparity in numbers, which was displayed then and always has been since. It was also shown in the Vulcan raids on the Falklands—the Operation Black Buck raids, which were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history. That incredible professionalism is on display today as it was in the 1980s and the 1940s.
I am also grateful to the Minister for rightly reminding us of the multi-layered aspects of defence, with regards to Nimrod and P-8A procurement, and for his comments about ownership of the skies, confirming the view that there will always be a need for a manned presence, in some aspects at least, although we accept and welcome the presence of unmanned aerial vehicles as well. He took us from the past all the way through to the present and on to the future, and I am grateful to him for doing so.
We all display our communities’ enormous pride in our armed forces personnel. We have all spoken of those today, and very movingly, too—everything from Brize Norton to Newark to Lossiemouth and all over the entirety of the UK. We are all on the same ground here: we have the finest Air Force in the world and we speak very much of our assets. In military terminology, assets tend to be platforms or aircraft, but they are of course not really the main asset. The main asset is the men and women of our Air Force. They have always made the Royal Air Force what it is and what it always will be in the future. We salute all the serving men and women of our Air Force—past, present and future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the 100th anniversary of the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917.