HC Deb 17 March 1981 vol 1 cc186-9
6. Mr. Stokes

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what progress has been made in improving the United Kingdom intervention capability outside the NATO area.

7. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what United Kingdom contribution will be made to any Western rapid deployment force established by the West; and whether he will make a statement.

9. Mr. Roy Hughes

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he is to hold any discussions with the Gulf States about new proposals for a possible intervention force for use in that area.

12. Mr. Aitken

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received concerning the proposals for establishing a rapid deployment force for operations in the Middle East.

13. Mr. Beaumont-Dark asked

the Secretary of State for Defence whether, in reviewing British defence commitments in the context of the Alliance, he will have due regard to the threat to British interests outside the NATO area.

Mr. Nott

British defence activity outside the NATO area aims to help maintain stability primarily by the provision of training and assistance, participation in joint exercises and the supply of defence equipment. In addition, British Armed Forces are already available to take military action in an emergency by rapid deployment overseas.

In concert with other allies, principally the United States, we are ready, where our assistance is sought, to make a modest use of force to protect the interests of friendly local States and of the West in strategic regions. In my discussions last week with the United States Secretary of Defence about the United States plans for a rapid deployment force, I made it clear that we will give full support to the United States.

We are also ready to undertake national tasks such as the reinforcement of British dependent territories or the protection of British citizens overseas.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call first the five hon. Members whose questions are being answered together.

Mr. Stokes

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he give some idea of the sort of forces which could be deployed in a rapid deployment force?

Mr. Nott

On our side, we already have a spearhead battalion, on 72 hours' notice. At present, it is the 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment, and in two weeks' time it will be the 1st Batallion the Royal Regiment of Wales. We have enough VC1Os and Hercules aircraft to lift the battalion quickly to any necessary part of the world. We also have further units on which we can draw from the 8th Field Force, which is stationed here, which includes a fully trained parachute battalion. We also have other forces, earmarked for NATO's ACE mobile force, some of them at present deployed in the United Kingdom, on which we can draw.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Would not belief in my right hon. Friend's welcome substantive reply be undermined if anything were done to reduce the strength and effectiveness of the Royal Marine Commando Force?

Mr. Nott

I know of my hon. Friend's great concern about the proposal to merge one of the Commandos with others. As I think I have told him, there is no present intention to reduce the numbers of Royal Marine Commandos, and recruiting is still increasing their numbers. However, we envisage there being one fewer Commando.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Has the Secretary of State considered the objections to these plans from Arab States in the area? Does he appreciate that, wisely and understandably, they do not wish to be involved in this cold war strategy? Would not it be better for the Government to forget these imperialist delusions and concentrate on getting Britain back to work?

Mr. Nott

I am not aware of the objections to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I shall be going to Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrein next week. No doubt I shall hear directly how they think we can act together in our common interests to preserve parts of the world from potential threats to countries in those areas and to the West as a whole.

Mr. Aitken

During my right hon. Friend's forthcoming visit to the Middle East, will he undertake to carry out detailed consultations with friendly Governments before coming to final decisions on our contribution to a RDF? In particular, is he aware that, although any extension of the existing maritime forces in the Gulf could be useful in a time of crisis, any attempt to build large military bases on foreign soil could prove both counterproductive and provocative?

Mr. Nott

The security and stability of the Gulf are in the first place matters of concern for those States themselves. We do not envisage action in the Gulf, for instance, without the full support and request of those States. It would be a common venture for the defence of countries threatened by aggression, so it would have to be by agreement and after consultation. I should have mentioned the Royal Navy's contribution, which could be significant, and in certain cases substantial, for a rapid deployment force.

The United States is at present having talks about bases with a number of countries in the area. They would almost certainly be bases for equipment and not for people, but these are matters that we are reviewing with the countries concerned.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Bearing in mind the vast wealth of the Gulf States, is it not best to offer them our military expertise and equipment and leave them to do best for themselves what in the end each country has to do?

Mr. Nott

Of course—that is precisely the position at present: we are providing considerable assistance to the Gulf States. They have extensive arrangements for their own defence, but if at any time they seek our assistance, I think that we should be ready to provide it.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Does the Secretary of State remember the long and successful struggle in the House to wind up our military activities east of Suez? Are the Government now proposing to return there?

Mr. Nott

I certainly remember the hon. Gentleman's struggle. Whether it was successful is a matter of judgment. We withdrew from permanent bases east of Suez, if that is what the hon. Gentleman means, and there is no intention to return to permanent bases there, in the Gulf or anywhere else. That is not, and was never said to be, the purpose of the rapid deployment force.

Mr. Trippier

Will my right hon. Friend seriously consider the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) about the Royal Marines? If money is to be found for a rapid deployment force, could that not be a means of giving a new lease of life to 41 Commando?

Mr. Nott

I understand my hon. Friend's concern about 41 Commando. The Royal Marines generally need no new lease of life, as I am sure my hon. Friend will agree. On the Naval task force side, we envisage the possibility that HMS "Hermes", with a Marine Commando and with support forces, would be available for an RDF-type task. In circumstances of that kind, or in others, the marines would perform a vital role.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Does not the Secretary of State's statement that he is prepared to reassign NATO-assigned mobile forces to the RDF strike a fundamental blow at the coherence of the NATO alliance, since our first priority is to the central front of NATO?

Mr. Nott

That is not what I said at all.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Yes, it is.

Mr. Nott

No, it is not. I said that we had a spearhead battalion available in this country at 72 hours' notice. I referred to the 8th Field Force, based in the United Kingdom, which is not dedicated to SACEUR. I then said that NATO itself—SACEUR—has a mobile force which, if NATO and SACEUR so decided, might itself provide some additional forces. That is quite different from the way in which the hon. Gentleman put it.

Mr. Johnson-Smith

As there are real problems with the composition and methods of control of rapid defence deployment forces outside the NATO area, when will my right hon. Friend be able to give us some idea of the Government's thinking on these complex and necessary matters?

Mr. Nott

I think that in the past five minutes I have given my hon. Friend a fairly clear idea of our thinking, but I should be happy to elaborate on it on some other occasion. A number of details have still to be settled. This depends to some extent on the Americans further developing their own ideas—for instance, on the command and control structure and on the exact composition of their forces—before we can finally tie up the details of our own contribution.

Mr. John

In an interview in NOW! magazine on 6 March, the Secretary of State denied that the boundaries of NATO would be extended at all. What he has now said about SACEUR seems to imply that there is a desire for extension. Does he deny that? Secondly, does he realise that the great fault in the announcement of the rapid deployment force is that the consultation took place in Washington and not in the Gulf States, where it should have been, before the force was announced? Will he kindly ask his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to think first and speak afterwards rather than the reverse?

Mr. Nott

There is a continuing dialogue with the Gulf States by the United States and by this country. The command and control arrangements would be national forces, not under NATO command. I must clarify once again what I said. I said that some mobile forces already exist which, if NATO so desired, might provide some forces as a mobile force. The United States, for instance, does not envisage that the RDF should be drawn from any troops on the central front. Nor do I envisage that any contribution that we might make would come from the central front. As I have said, it would come from the spearhead battalion. If more was needed, it might come from the 8th Field Force, which is in the United Kingdom.