HC Deb 26 April 1990 vol 171 cc621-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Patnick.]

12.23 am
Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise the subject of the enhancement of short-range nuclear missiles in West Germany. I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office for being present to reply to this brief debate. My short-range missile was aimed at the Ministry of Defence and I am intrigued to find that it has been intercepted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The subject of my debate is topical. Tonight's Evening Standard carries a report on page 2 that begins: NATO is to scrap controversial plans to modernise short-range missiles in Europe". The report quotes an unnamed NATO diplomat as saying: 'There is now universal recognition within the alliance that we cannot deploy a new short-range missile that would hit democratic countries in Eastern Europe.' I have been saying that for months and have been howled down by the Government Front Bench for my pains. The report continues: 'It is simply now a question of a formal decision and announcement to that effect. The outcome is not in doubt.' This is an extremely important topic for the United Kingdom and NATO. I have had the chance to question Defence Ministers on this subject in recent months and so far I have found their replies disappointing. The Government appear to be one beat behind the band. I hope for a more sympathetic and understanding response tonight from the Minister—one that leaves behind last year's briefing papers and faces the new realities in Europe.

In a nutshell, my case, which is supported by many of my hon. Friends, is that flexible response needs to be revised in the light of the much-reduced threat in Europe. If we fail to do so, or are slow to do so, we shall undermine Britain's nuclear policies in general, and our political opponents will seize on the fact, as they have done so effectively during recent Defence questions.

There is a constant job to be done by Ministers in putting over to the public at large why the United Kingdom and NATO need nuclear weapons in the 1990s. It is not good enough just to hold on to our supporters in this matter. We need to gain fresh supporters, particularly among those in their 20s and 30s. If, once again, defence is to be a strong card for the Government at the next general election, we need to convince the electorate that our defence policies are sound, realistic and, above all, up to date.

Eighteen months ago, I fully supported the need for NATO to modernise its short-range nuclear forces. The debate was intensively waged in the run-up to the NATO summit of May 1989. Alongside the wider debate within NATO, there was an intense debate within the West German ruling coalition, and the issue was regarded as one of great sensitivity which might affect the outcome of the West German election. Broadly speaking, the Christian Democrats and Chancellor Kohl favoured the retention of some short-range nuclear capacity after Lance becomes obsolete, and that is expected to be in the mid 1990s, whereas the Free Democrats and Foreign Minister Genscher were more inclined to accept the Soviet offer of a "third zero".

In view of that sensitivity, some senior members of our Government approached the subject without sufficient tact and diplomacy. It also seemed to some of us that British military opinion was less rigid on the subject than No. 10. Now, following the extraordinary and historic changes in eastern Europe—no Berlin wall, free elections in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany, and an end to the Communist monopoly in the Soviet Union—undeniably there has to be fresh thinking.

Lord Carrington, who is uniquely qualified to comment on these issues, was reported in The Daily Telegraph of 21 November as saying: I would have thought there is no conceivable situation now in which short-range nuclear weapons which land on East German soil would be acceptable. That chapter, I think, is over. I think that that chapter is over, too. Defence experts outside the Government ranks think that that is so. One purpose of this short debate is to find out whether the Minister now agrees, and, if not, why not.

The Lance is the only land-based nuclear missile deployed by NATO in Europe. It has a range of 110 km, so, from its present deployment positions in West Germany, it could reach only East Germany and Czechoslovakia. I cannot believe that the Germans, rushing towards reunification, could ever agree to any replacement being deployed on German soil. Why should they?

Formally, at least until this evening, the British Government have not changed their position. The arguments that we on the Government Benches used 18 months ago were being used until today, though in very different circumstances. On the surface, the Government have not responded to the changed public mood, and if the Minister thinks I am exaggerating I draw his attention to Defence questions on 3 April. It has been a political mistake not to have responded to that changed public mood.

We are told that the comprehensive concept of May 1989 still represents official NATO policy and that no further decisions have been taken by the alliance as a whole. These are complex matters needing widespread consultation, but Ministers, busy in their offices and at conferences, have forgotten the politics of it all.

We understand that the SNF issue is being studied intensively by the so-called high level group which is due to report to the nuclear planning group in Alberta, Canada, on 9 and 10 May. Modernisation was discussed by the Prime Minister and President Bush in Bermuda on 13 April. It was agreed that there should be a new NATO summit in the near future and that that meeting would address not only nuclear modernisation but such heavyweight subjects as the future status of Germany in NATO and, long overdue, the reintegration of France into some aspects of the NATO military structure. According to the Sunday Times of 15 April: Officials on both sides said Mrs. Thatcher had told the President she was prepared to abandon her insistence that NATO's ageing Lance short-range nuclear missiles be modernised, and had acknowledged that the Lance and remaining nuclear-tipped artillery shells would have to be taken out of the new Germany and transferred, probably to Britain. Did British officials give any such guidance? If that report is true—and I hope that it is—it is high time that the House had an early statement, for it represents a major change in British defence policy.

Meanwhile, decisions on the deployment phase in the United States are more immediate. Congressmen with whom I discussed the matter during the Easter recess told me that they would not allow any further funding. On 14 April, Jane's Defence Weekly reported that the Pentagon had told the United States army missile command not to proceed with tendering for the contract, apparently in anticipation of a decision by Congress. Congress would be wise to rule out any further funding.

It seems that, as in Britain, the top leadership has got out of touch with political and public opinion. It is also out of touch with expert opinion. For example, Atlantic News of 4 April reported a study for the John Hopkins foreign policy institute by Mr. Brezinski which recommended the abandonment of the follow-on to Lance. The same source on 18 April recorded a Washington Post interview with General Galvin in which he admitted that deployment was becoming unlikely.

While most NATO Governments have yet to comment, the Belgian Government have stated that Lance modernisation no longer makes sense. Lord Salisbury once remarked that it was a great mistake to hang around the carcases of dead policies. The British Government should now state clearly that the replacement of Lance is unrealistic and that, as a result, they will go for the development and deployment of new air-launched nuclear missiles. The NATO aircraft involved will be based not in Germany but in the four states originally earmarked for intermediate nuclear force deployment: the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Following the recent talks between President Bush and President Mitterrand, it is possible that France will co-ordinate its own plans for an air-launched missile with NATO. That would be a welcome step forward. It is just possible that at some future time France will agree to house United States bases.

Of course, some people outside the House will say that such an SNF capacity is no longer required. That is going too far. The Soviet Union has already modernised its nuclear weapons in this category. It is thought to have 1,450 launches—a ratio of some 16 to one. Those weapons—at least for the time being—threaten key NATO facilities in the forward area, especially airfields and communication centres. They might be moved after negotiations, perhaps at the same time as the withdrawal of the Lance missiles, but that remains in the future.

The Government must update both their position and their arguments. I hope that it will not be long before the Secretary of State presents to the House a new policy along the lines that I have suggested: such a policy will carry conviction with Conservative Back Benchers, the defence community and the British public.

12.36 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. William Waldegrave)

I do not think that my hon. Friend will be surprised if I do not announce a new NATO policy tonight single-handed. Perhaps, however, I can give him an element of the updated position for which he asks—at least in relation to our general approach, which is, of course, fluid.

Dramatic and far-reaching changes in eastern Europe have created a new context and a new challenge for NATO. The prospect of German unification and the advance of democracy and independence throughout eastern and central Europe have revolutionary implications for the Warsaw Pact, and profound—but less simple—implications for NATO. The full agenda for NATO's defence and foreign Ministers will involve them in many meetings in the coming weeks. As my hon. Friend has said, we hope that it will be possible for a NATO summit to endorse the direction in which NATO must evolve in the 1990s. Indeed, there is great interest in NATO's future generally, and particularly in the role to be played by a united Germany.

I hope that there will be no question of undermining the core arrangements—collective arrangements—which have guaranteed the West's security for 40 years. Our position is clear, as is that of our principal allies. At the Königswinter conference in Cambridge, the Prime Minister listed what she considered to be the three essential conditions for continuing security. First, a united Germany should be part of NATO, as that would offer the best security for Europe as a whole. Strikingly, that is the view not only of the Federal Republic and the rest of NATO, but of several eastern European countries. Secondly, United States and other stationed forces should remain in Germany, albeit possibly at reduced levels. Thirdly, NATO should continue to deploy nuclear weapons where strategy dictated it, and that should include Germany. Those conditions will underpin NATO's deliberations in the coming months.

We have welcomed the ideas advanced by the United States to give NATO an increased political role. That role, however, must be a development of the underlying military role which it must retain. We need to preserve the essentials of military structure in the process of updating and re-evaluating NATO's future posture. Change and upheaval in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe bring uncertainty. We have seen it again in the last few weeks. We must not lose sight of the fact that the Soviet Union remains a super-power with a wide range of nuclear and conventional weapons. She has carried out the modernisation of her own short-range nuclear weapons and of her nuclear artillery. That capability, having been modernised throughout the 1980s, stretches potentially into the future and extends the Soviet Union's overwhelming numerical imbalance compared with NATO forces.

At the heart of NATO's achievement in the last 40 years is the collective will that it represents. The essence of its strength—often slow moving—has been that collective nature. That is particularly important in relation to the decisions about nuclear systems, which often take decades to develop. Planning is frequently slow and cautious—and rightly so. However, NATO is not blind to the changes in Europe. They will affect requirements in terms of numbers and the types of systems that underpin our continuing need, against the super-power to our east, for an effective nuclear deterrent strategy.

There are two complementary factors at work in determining the future composition of short-range weapons in west Germany and elsewhere. They reflect NATO decisions taken in the early 1980s. There is the need to preserve and, if necessary, to modernise NATO's overall nuclear capability in order to ensure a credible and sustainable deterrent. There is also the task of continuing to reduce and rationalise the nuclear stockpile without reducing security. On the first point, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the President of the United States reaffirmed in Bermuda a fortnight ago that NATO would continue to rely on deterrence, based on a mix of conventional and nuclear weapons, including SNF. They stressed that these weapons must be kept up to date.

My hon. Friend referred to the comprehensive concept of arms control and disarmament agreed by the heads of Government last May. The commitment to modernise weapons as necessary still stands, as does the formula in the comprehensive concept—that any negotiations on reducing the United States and the Soviet SNF would depend on substantive progress in the separate negotiations on conventional forces in Europe.

We shall need to assess how to achieve the second objective of reducing the NATO stockpile. NATO will consider the possibility of reductions in current nuclear forces. As my hon. Friend knows, since 1979 we have reduced the stockpiles by 35 per cent. We hope that the Soviet Union will take parallel action and will begin to match those reductions. The Soviet Union's reductions so far have been derisory.

The scale and nature of the future deployment of SNF and other military forces in west Germany and elsewhere will depend upon NATO consultations on which weapons systems will be required and on what reductions in existing forces are possible. That is part of our collective security and it is the principal point that I wish to put to my hon. Friend.

The message matters, but the medium matters, too—not only the substance of decisions but the means for arriving at those decisions. NATO would long ago have been reduced to a shambles of squabbling individual countries if each country had pursued its own political bent at any one time. The strength of the alliance over the years has been our commitment to collective decision taking.

Mr. Cyril Townsend

I happily concede that point, but ought not the Government at least tell the public about the direction in which NATO ought to be going? That has not been done in this particular area.

Mr. Waldegrave

It depends what we think the principal challenge to NATO is. I believe that the challenge for NATO, at a time of rapid transition and change, is to maintain coherence—not to take the role of commentator. That role is vital. So, too, is the Back Bencher's role. Surely the Minister's role is to judge at a particular time which is most important—to maintain the collective unity of decision-taking or to indulge in the role, which is a proper role for others, of exploring and kite-flying.

In the past few months, the period of transition, the Governments who have floated ideas from which they have sometimes then backed away and who have flown kites which have turned out not necessarily to be timely have not been those contributing most to the continuing solidarity of the alliance. It is important to see that the solidarity of the alliance, which at one time at the end of last year began to look rather frail, has been restored by the Americans' stalwartness and leadership in showing that they remained wholly committed to taking the decisions in the right format and at the right time.

That is not to say that we should not, at the right time and in the right format, move the great engine of the alliance forward, and doubtless we shall. Many of the arguments and many of the excellent analyses, including those offered by my hon. Friend will contribute to the next decisions as they come. In retrospect, it will not be seen to have been wrong that some at the heart of the alliance have argued throughout this period that the principal objective and duty of senior Ministers was to try to maintain coherence even against short-term political pressures. This House, this party and my hon. Friend have a record of which to be proud in standing against short-term political pressures to win the greater prize.

My hon. Friend will not be disappointed in the quality of analysis that will come forward over the next weeks of intensive inter-alliance discussion that we now face with the North Atlantic Council, with an extra summit and a whole raft of meetings at the highest level. Clearly, this will be a decisive year for NATO, for the alliance and for the west in terms of sketching out our defence strategy for the next period. However, it will not come to be seen as having been unduly hesitant for us to have waited and watched to see how developments turned out before rushing down particular routes.

The bottom line remains the maintenance of the trans-Atlantic alliance and the maintenance of the American commitment to Europe, with United States forces—and United States nuclear forces—in Europe, and with those forces in the right mixture and up to date. We have intensely difficult political pressures to try to handle, which are different in each country. The only hope of handling them in a way which produces a rational outcome is to do so collectively and carefully. NATO will collectively decide the next steps, and NATO will reaffirm the need for close trans-Atlantic co-operation. Like my hon. Friend, I should welcome any steps that the French may feel able to take to move closer to us. Their commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance is in no doubt and has been reaffirmed by President Mitterrand in his recent talks with the United States president.

I urge my hon. Friend to be a little more patient. I do not know what the final outcome will be, but I believe that the method of decision-taking will be almost as important as the decision in the short term. The member countries of NATO must not show that when the immediate pressures are off we all rush down the easiest political path in the short term. We should try to maintain our collective will because that collective will, which has served us so well for the past 40 years and to which my hon. Friend is as committed as any in the House, may well be needed to serve us in the next 40 years.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to One o'clock.