HC Deb 27 June 1978 vol 952 cc1194-6
3. Mr. Arnold

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether, at the next meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence, he will seek to place on the agenda the question of equipment standardisation.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

When I next meet my NATO ministerial colleagues collectively at the defence planning committee towards the end of this year, we shall discuss general defence issues, including those arising from the long-term defence programme, and also the report by the conference of national armaments directors to the council which deals with equipment standardisation and inter-operability.

Mr. Arnold

Within the context of the 10-year long-term defence programme and the recent announcement about accelerating co-operation between Europe and America in the development of new weapons, will the Secretary of State now say what specific obstacles he sees in the way of undertaking further moves in the direction of standardisation generally?

Mr. Mulley

Standardisation is much more easily dealt with by talk and resolution than in actual practice, because all countries have problems of industrial equipment. There are also problems of time scales. For example, I believe that we were right to decide to go for Nimrod for our airborne early warning aircraft. If we had not done so, the whole of the NATO airborne early warning system might have collapsed. Although we are seeking the maximum inter-operability, it was contrary to standardisation.

We have to try to get the widest possible agreement on operational requirements for the next generation of weapons, and then, between Europe on the one hand and the United States of America on the other, try to devise a much better system than we have managed to achieve in the past.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it has been argued that the Warsaw Pact Powers are able to obtain much greater efficiency for the same expenditure purely because they have a higher level of standardisation? Will he accept that this matter should be treated very much more urgently?

Mr. Mulley

I agree that there is an enormous military bonus to be gained from complete inter-operability of equipment, although I should hesitate to want an alliance dominated by one partner in the way that the Warsaw Pact is arranged. Within the realms of practical possibility, we and our European allies are seeking, with the United States, to achieve what we can in this direction.

Mr. Hooson

Does the Secretary of State agree that the real obstacles to standardisation are the short-term economic interests of each member country in the NATO alliance? We are all pressing here for standardisation on security grounds, but there would be a howl of protest from each side of the House if there were standardisation which resulted in far fewer jobs in this country. That is true of all the NATO countries. How is this matter to be resolved?

Mr. Mulley

Not only in defence but in the wider context it is easier to agree to the general proposition than to the particular propositions which flow from it. I believe that we can, by devising a system of packages, work out a means whereby in Europe we can sustain employment in our industry and at the same time achieve, with our United States allies, a better arrangement than we have now.

Mr. Goodhart

Now that the Germans appear to have won the tank gun competition in the United States, will the Secretary of State say whether we are to press ahead with our own tank gun development or whether, on the grounds of inter-operability, we are to accept the German 120-mm smooth bore gun?

Mr. Mulley

We are still considering the options open to us for the next tank to succeed Chieftain, and I have not yet reached any decision. But clearly the question of standardisation or inter-operability is one of the factors in that decision. On the other hand, I still believe that the British gun is the best gun in the business.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that a fitting prelude to standardisation of equipment would be to standardise the contribution that we make to NATO as a percentage of our gross national product, in view of the constant complaints that we receive from the Opposition, when we are paying, as a percentage, more than anybody else?

Mr. Mulley

My hon. Friend is even sharper than usual today, because he has asked a supplementary before I have been able to answer the Question on the Order Paper in his name, to which I was looking forward. I do not think, however, that it is quite as simple as my hon. Friend suggests to standardise the contribution that each country makes. It depends not only on defence expenditure but on the size of the country's gross domestic product. I look forward to carrying the argument further when we reach my hon. Friend's Question.

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