HC Deb 28 June 1988 vol 136 cc177-9
1. Mr. Fatchett

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation last reviewed the relationship within its overall strategy between conventional and nuclear weapons; and what role Her Majesty's Government played in that process.

3. Mr. Heffer

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation last reviewed the relationship within its overall strategy between conventional and nuclear weapons; and what role Her Majesty's Government played in that process.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger)

NATO and its member nations keep all aspects of Alliance strategy under constant review, in order to ensure that it remains effective. As Defence Ministers reaffirmed at the meeting of the Defence Planning Committee last month, the strategy of flexible response and forward defence, based on an appropriate mix of adequate and effective nuclear and conventional forces, remains vital to our security.

Mr. Fatchett

Does the Secretary of State accept that the mix to which he referred is increasingly veering towards the nuclear and that that imposes particular constraints on conventional weapons and on expenditure on conventional weapons? Does he further accept that, because of those constraints, the British Army has been unable to place orders for the new generation of tanks and that that is typical of the problems facing the armed forces? When will that order be placed, and how much of it will come to the Vickers factory in Leeds?

Mr. Younger

I am afraid that I cannot agree with either of the hon. Gentleman's points. On the first point, of a much larger defence budget, no less than 95 per cent. is spent on conventional, not nuclear, armaments. That disposes effectively of the hon. Gentleman's first point.

Secondly, as he will be aware, a number of new regiments of Challenger tanks are now in production, and we ordered a seventh regiment last year. Decisions will have to be taken about further replacements, and I hope that that will be done before the end of the year.

Mr. Heffer

Are not the Government speaking—as the Indians in the old Westerns used to say—with forked voice?—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Tongue."] Forked voice or forked tongue, it is the same thing. On the one hand the Government say that they welcome the initiatives of the Soviet Union, and on the other they introduce proposals that reinforce the concept of nuclear weapons. Is it not time that they accepted the initiative of the Soviet Union and got down to believing the words of Mr. Gorbachev rather than suggesting that he speaks with a forked tongue? Is it not time that they did something positive for once about getting rid of nuclear weapons, rather than using conventional weapons to reintroduce them, which is what they are doing at the moment?

Mr. Younger

I hope the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I suggest that he must be thinking with a forked mind. It was not in any sense Mr. Gorbachev's initiative that led to the INF treaty. It was an initiative taken by the Western Alliance in 1981 which, after a few years of prevarication, was eventually agreed to by the Soviet Union. The thing that really brought the Russians to the negotiating table was the knowledge that we were prepared to defend ourselves.

Sir Antony Buck

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we were to obey Opposition Members' theories there would be an extraction of our independent nuclear deterrent, and if we were to extract our nuclear input from the negotiations independently it would be grossly destablising and would upset the whole process of negotiation?

Mr. Younger

I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend. If we had obeyed the instructions of Opposition Members—which, thank goodness, we did not—we should have cruise missiles for ever facing each other in Europe, which we now do not. If we agreed to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) in future, there is no doubt that further reductions and arms control would be very unlikely.

Mr. Thorne

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, if we had no nuclear deterrent, we would need to spend three times as much on conventional weapons to maintain any parity with the Soviet Union?

Mr. Younger

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend's sentiment, but I must beg to differ. Even if we were to spend three times as much, we would not get anything like the same effect that we get out of our present nuclear deterrent. It is worth reminding ourselves that the entire NATO Alliance—all countries of all political persuasions—is united in its determination that the doctrine of flexible response is the best security for all of us.

Mr. Foot

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that when he tries to detract from Mr. Gorbachev having made any contribution to such an agreement as we have recently had he makes himself look utterly ridiculous? When he insists on the phrase "flexible response", as he always does, will he take into account the fact that, in certain circumstances, it means that the NATO Alliance, or Britain, would be prepared to use nuclear weapons first? It may be that even he is not insane enough to contemplate that.

Mr. Younger

If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so, I never said that Mr. Gorbachev made no contribution to the INF treaty. He has. I have made it clear that he has made a contribution to it, but it was not his initiative that brought us to the discussion. It was a Western initiative. The right hon. Gentleman really must accept that.

None of the NATO allies has any doubt about the use of flexible response. It is based on the facts that NATO will never use any weapon first, and, if NATO were to be attacked by an aggressor, it would have a deterrent and, if necessary, in extremis, would use it.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

What is my right hon. Friend's view of the impact on strategic planning of the yo-yo nuclear and conventional defence policies of the leader of Her Majesty's Opposition?

Mr. Younger

It is too difficult for me to speculate on the Leader of the Opposition's shifting views on nuclear defence.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that supplementary questions must relate to the question on the Order Paper.

Mr. O'Neill

Is the Secretary of State still confident that he can meet his forward defence responsibilities within NATO, given reports about the deplorable rundown in the surface fleet? Is he prepared to announce orders for the type 23 frigates that the country and our shipyards desperately require?

Mr. Younger

I most warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position and look forward to debating defence matters with him. I am sure that he will be able to put forward his party's nuclear defence policy every bit as well as the Leader of the Opposition.

There has been no official report of the sort that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We intend in future to keep a force of about 50 destroyers and frigates. I shall announce orders for further frigates as soon as the process of assessing bids is completed.

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