HC Deb 10 January 1989 vol 144 cc680-2
12. Mr. Wareing

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation short-range modernisation programme of President Gorbachev's proposals for military reductions.

13. Ms. Short

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation short-range modernisation programme of President Gorbachev's proposals for military reductions.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

President Gorbachev's proposals for a reduction in Soviet conventional forces, if implemented in full, will be a welcome step towards removing the Warsaw pact's significant conventional superiority. However, NATO's requirement to retain the full range of capabilities, nuclear and conventional, in support of its strategy of flexible response, will not change. In order to maintain deterrence at the minimum level of forces, Alliance capabilities must be kept effective and up to date.

Mr. Wareing

Does the Minister agree that the Montebello decision, rather than short-range weapons, is outdated now that we have the Gorbachev proposals? When will the Prime Minister be big enough to match the proposals? If it is possible to remove troops and tanks from central Europe, is it not time to withdraw nuclear weapons too?

Mr. Hamilton

As the hon. Gentleman knows, at Montebello it was agreed to reduce nuclear stockpiles and remove 1,400 shells. However, at the same time, it was agreed that it was necessary to put forward proposals to update our short-range nuclear systems and that is what we are examining now.

Ms. Short

During the afternoon we have constantly heard welcomes for President Gorbachev's disarmament initiatives together with the response that we intend to do nothing in return. Could we think again and be more imaginative and generous? The Minister knows that the plan for short-range modernisation is dividing NATO and is deeply unpopular in Germany. Here is a chance for us to reciprocate, to say that we shall not modernise, but will attempt to achieve further disarmament. Or are the Government not really in favour of multilateral disarmament?

Mr. Hamilton

I must put the hon. Lady right about the deep unpopularity. An agreement was reached to update short-range nuclear systems in October last year. Therefore, there is unanimity on that. If we made other gestures of reductions, we would, merely widen the imbalance between the number of Warsaw pact forces and our own. This is a first step and is welcome, but we want to see subsequent steps which will continue to reduce the imbalance between the forces of both sides.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

It would be churlish not to welcome the latest Soviet proposals. However does my hon. Friend agree that so long as the Soviet Union maintains its present enormous numerical advantage over NATO, and while the Gorbachev era is still at an early stage, it would be the height of folly for the West to be lulled into a false sense of security and to beat its swords into ploughshares?

Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend is correct. The Soviet Union still maintains an aggressive first strike capability in Europe. We must see a change to a defensive posture. That has not yet happened. We must judge the Soviet Union not by what it says but by what it does and by the factual situation in Europe.

Mr. Mates

Will my hon. Friend remind the House of the lessons of the INF treaty? Is it not the case that without our resolve to modernise our weapons there would be no treaty? Is that not the prime reason why we must press ahead with modernisation, while welcoming any steps that the Russians may genuinely take to lower tensions?

Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend is right. We must continue to negotiate from a position of strength. Any unilateral gestures would undermine our negotiating position rather than enhance it.

Mr. Sean Hughes

Does the Minister envisage a role for tactical nuclear weapons when a conventional balance is reached?

Mr. Hamilton

Yes, I think that as part of the flexible response we shall continue to need tactical nuclear weapons, although, of course, we do not exclude any weapons system whatever in the future.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Will my hon. Friend agree that we have short-range nuclear weapons because of the very large disparity in conventional forces in the field? Will he further agree that while Mr. Gorbachev's proposals are welcome, we would wish to see actual and real reductions before we could ever think of reducing our modernisation programme?

Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are at present talking in terms of proposals and we have not seen any changes on the ground. We must wait until we see those come through and see subsequent reductions as a result of the conventional stability talks which should be going ahead this year.