HC Deb 28 October 1980 vol 991 cc181-3
2. Mr. Aitken

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what progress he has made, in consultation with NATO Allies, towards the establishment of a rapid deployment force.

Mr. Pym

I welcome the establishment by the United States of a rapid deployment force as a valuable contribution to deterring further Soviet encroachment. The United Kingdom will do whatever it can to support the United States; and, as my lion. Friend will know, we are considering how we can enhance our own rapid deployment capability.

Mr. Aitken

Does my right hon. Friend agree that recent dangerous events in the Gulf war have emphasised yet again how necessary a rapid deployment force might be as an insurance policy for our national security? As the American rapid deployment force seems to be taking shape very slowly indeed, will my right hon. Friend press our European allies and, indeed, our own forces, to make preparations for this?

Mr. Pym

Yes, and, as I made clear in the White Paper, we are considering ways in which we can increase our flexibility and capability to act outside the NATO boundaries if that should prove necessary. In fact, as my hon. Friend knows, we have two Royal Navy ships in the Gulf at present, available if necessary to protect our merchant shipping. But I believe that the strategic frontiers of Europe lie far beyond the NATO boundaries and that it is necessary for us and our allies to do what we can to be able to act in a military capacity if circumstances make that desirable.

Mr. Cook

Does the Secretary of State accept that he will have the loyal support of many Labour Members in his efforts to bring the overspending by his Department under control? Does he also recognise that at a time when the television channels show British sailors playing cards because we cannot afford the fuel to enable them to sail their vessels, it is nothing but the purest folly to pretend that Britain could create a force that could go anywhere in the world, at any time and fight anyone?

Mr. Pym

I disagree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. No one has pretended that we have the capability that he has just described to go anywhere, with any force, at any time. I have always made it clear that, due to our economic circumstances, it is not possible for us to make other than a modest contribution outside the NATO boundaries. However, to the extent that it can be increased, improved and made more versatile and flexible, I think that is an advantage, and I shall work in that direction. I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the spending of my Department. I am taking all the steps that I can—obviously—to cut out unnecessary and wasteful expenditure. All Ministers do that, and it is going on in my Department very vigorously.

Mr. Trippier

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the mobilisation and deployment of the Reserve Services in the NATO exercise Crusader?

Mr. Pym

There is a later question on that subject, so perhaps I had better not pursue it now.

Mr. Roper

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it it now six months since he said in his White Paper that he was considering various measures to improve the mobility of British forces outside the NATO area? Will he tell the House what decisions have been made about that, what costs will fall on the defence budget as a result of that, and whether that expenditure will be in addition to the 3 per cent. increase that he has committed to NATO, or whether it will mean a further reduction in the funds available for the defence of NATO Europe?

Mr. Pym

I should like to say two things in reply: first, the cost will fall within our budget; secondly, what I am envisaging, and always have, is the use of our existing forces. I am not thinking of creating a separate force, in the sense that the United States is doing, that is able to go to a certain part of the world. What I am trying to create are the circumstances in which we can put together, as appropriate, perhaps a parachute capability or some other capability that can be used in particular circumstances. What we are looking at is how we can bring together a wider range of capabilities, move them more quickly to wherever they may be required and whether we can stockpile. That work continues.