HC Deb 16 January 1979 vol 960 cc1482-4
13. Mr. Robin F. Cook

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what definitions are in use in his Department for (a) defensive weapon and (b) an offensive weapon.

Mr. Mulley

No formal definitions are in use.

Mr. Cook

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the reason why there are no formal definitions is that it is impossible adequately to distinguish between an offensive and a defensive weapon? Will he draw that difficulty to the attention of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who only last November described to the House the Harrier jump-jet as a defensive piece of equipment? Surely the plain fact is that that jet will give China an offensive capability against many of its dozen neighbours.

Mr. Mulley

I think that my hon. Friend well understands that it is extremely difficult in most instances, with few exceptions, to say that weapons are wholly defensive or offensive. The answer depends entirely on the circumstances and the intention of their use. The Harrier is essentially a short-range tactical aircraft with a defensive role in support of ground troops. In that sense I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs was right in indicating that it was designed for, and would most likely be used in, that defensive role.

Mr. Adley

We have heard the voices of the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends echoing the line of the Kremlin, but is it not a fact that the Harrier's operational range is between 100 and 200 miles? Is it not a fact that the problem for the Chinese is the huge Soviet build-up on their frontiers? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there is no other weapon that could possibly compensate the Chinese for the massive military superiority that the Soviet Union possesses and with which it threatens China on its frontier?

Mr. Mulley

The hon. Gentleman does not strengthen his case by making allegations about my hon. Friends. That is not helpful. The Harrier's pay load and range are essential for the battlefield rather than for long-range operations. It is not for me to determine the best defences for the People's Republic of China.

Mrs. Wise

Does my right hon. Friend regard tanks as offensive or defensive weapons? As it is claimed that the Soviet forces have a superiority in tanks, I imagine that we regard them as offensive weapons. If that is so, why were the British Government prepared to sell to the Shah of Iran more tanks than are in the possession of the British Army?

Mr. Mulley

The tank is a good example of the great difficulty of categorising weapons. One of the best ways of countering an attack by enemy tanks is by sending one's own tanks into the battlefield against them.