HC Deb 10 January 1989 vol 144 cc669-71
1. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for United Kingdom defence policy of President Gorbachev's proposed military reductions.

3. Mr. Morgan

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for United Kingdom defence policy of President Gorbachev's proposed military reductions.

4. Mr. Corbyn

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's defence strategy of President Gorbachev's proposed reductions in Soviet forces stationed in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany.

8. Mrs. Beckett

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for United Kingdom defence policy of President Gorbachev's proposals to reduce the numbers of tanks, combat aircraft and artillery systems.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archibald Hamilton)

The British Government and their NATO allies have welcomed the reductions in Soviet forces announced by Mr. Gorbachev on 7 December. If implemented, these will be a significant step towards the elimination of the Warsaw pact's large numerical superiorities in conventional forces in Europe. Even after such reductions, however, Warsaw pact conventional forces would outnumber NATO in Europe by approximately 2.5:1 in tanks and artillery. It will still be necessary, therefore, for NATO to pursue its existing policy of maintaining adequate forces to deter aggression while seeking improved international relations through arms control and other measures.

Mr. Bennett

Is that not a complacent and disappointing answer to the question? Does the Minister accept that the proposals are very significant, that they will save the Soviet Union a considerable amount of money, that they will enable it to get rid of obsolete equipment and that they will also be a significant step towards reducing armaments? Can the Government match that with some similar gesture? Is it not time that we got rid of Trident, which is extremely expensive and clearly will not work, as we do not have an independent communications system? Would that not be a significant gesture in the same direction?

Mr. Hamilton

The difficulty that we face is the appalling imbalances between the Warsaw pact countries and our own, so there is nothing to be said for balancing this. We want to see continued asymmetrical cuts bearing heavily on the Warsaw pact side. However, we very much welcome this as a good first step.

Mr. Morgan

Is the Minister telling us that, until the reduction in the Soviet Union and Warsaw pact forces passes the level of the NATO forces on the way down, NATO, and the British Government in particular, will not change their defence policy or try to participate in the process of build-down that the Soviet Union now appears to want to initiate? Does he agree that, by the time President Gorbachev arrives on the re-arranged visit to this country, the Government will have prepared no new United Kingdom defence policy in answer to what appears to be a completely altered threat from an offensive strategy by the Soviet Union to a defensive strategy? Surely the Government must have some response to that.

Mr. Hamilton

It is much too early to say that the whole Soviet threat has altered. We are seeing a reduction, or proposed reduction, in the numbers of troops, but the military capability of the Warsaw pact, in terms of its equipment, is improving.

Mrs. Beckett

Does the Minister accept that the Soviet Union's package of proposals means that NATO should consider revising its strategy? Should not decisions such as those to base more nuclear-capable United States aircraft in this country be delayed until the full impact of the proposals has been taken into account?

Mr. Hamilton

No. What we next want to see is progress being made on the conventional stability talks, which will reduce numbers on both sides. There are proposals to reach lower levels, and we are proposing that the number of tanks held by both sides should be 40,000.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my hon. Friend agree that, even after the proposed reductions, the Soviet Union's massive superiority in numbers should give us cause for concern? Does he also agree that the demonstration given by the Mig at Farnborough last year shows clearly how the Soviet Union has caught up with the West in technology and ability and that this should also give us cause for concern, because, at one time, we thought that we had superiority in quality?

Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend is right. Both Flanker and Fulcrum are sophisticated aircraft that have given the Soviet Union a great technological leap forward; we certainly cannot be complacent about the technical capability of the Soviet forces.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is strong support for the views of the Government and their attitude and reactions to the Soviet initiative, but that there is still a great deal of work to be done on verification, and that the best way of dealing with these matters is through the conventional stability talks rather than through unilateral NATO reductions?

Mr. Hamilton

Yes, that absolutely must be true. It is important that the Soviet Union takes up a defensive posture over this rather than an aggressive one.

Mr. Brazier

Does my hon. Friend agree that, while the reductions are welcome, they do not in any way affect the modernisation programme of sea and air-launched cruise missiles that the Soviet Union is carrying out, and that for many years the Soviet Union had a policy of keeping its older tanks as new ones come in and that the equivalent British tanks which correspond to those being scrapped on the other side left service many years ago?

Mr. Hamilton

Yes, that is absolutely right. Modern Soviet tanks virtually outnumber all tanks held by NATO forces.

Ms. Ruddock

Is it not a fact that Mr. Gorbachev has made it clear that there is real expectation in the Soviet Union that the unilateral cuts will take account of that notion and that there will be new tanks among those that are to be reduced?

Mr. Hamilton

I should be surprised if we saw substantial cuts in the number of new tanks held by the Soviet Union. I remind the hon. Lady that it was Mr. Krushchev who said that he would reduce troops by 1.25 million, and that those reductions never took place.

Mr. Ian Taylor

Does my hon. Friend agree that many eastern European countries go some way towards welcoming Mr. Gorbachev's announcement of these withdrawals, but would welcome even further withdrawals from their territory? Can he keep pressure on the Soviet Union to continue talks about the future of the balance between the Warsaw pact and NATO at the conventional stability talks in Vienna?

Mr. Hamilton

Yes, we shall maintain all pressure. Several eastern European countries are grateful to see Soviet divisions withdraw, but there are no proposals to withdraw the large numbers of divisions from East Germany.

Mr. O'Neill

The Minister said that the number of Soviet tanks which will be withdrawn are predominantly aged. Will he concede that the bulk of the tanks which are at present located in the German Democratic Republic have of necessity to be among the most modern? Given that a large proportion of the tanks which President Gorbachev has said are being withdrawn will be withdrawn from East Germany, surely it would be inappropriate for us further to enhance the instability of the position by going ahead and modernising our tactical weapons at a time when the threat that those weapons are supposed to be meeting will be considerably reduced?

Mr. Hamilton

No. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, in practice the Soviet Union is modernising all its weapons systems, so it is important that we maintain the quality of our weapon systems even if we have fewer of them.

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