HC Deb 10 May 1999 vol 331 cc14-5
10. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

What contingency plans NATO has made for the stationing of British land forces in Kosovo. [82587]

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

It was agreed at the NATO summit that the Secretary-General of NATO and the military planners should update their planning. In the meantime, a build-up of NATO forces is taking place in Macedonia in anticipation of deploying into Kosovo to implement a peace settlement and ensure the safety and security of refugees returning to their homes. As at 10 May, there are 5,700 British Army personnel and about 100 Royal Air Force personnel deployed in Macedonia in connection with those plans.

Mr. Fabricant

The Secretary of State has said nothing about the amount of time that troops might have to be in Kosovo. Perhaps he is quite right to do so—it could be an indefinite commitment. If we are to maintain troops in Kosovo, and also in Bosnia, we will need about 30 new regiments and battalions if we are to achieve a 24-month gap between operational tours. Is that not the case and, if we are to make a commitment in Kosovo, will the Government either commit themselves now to increasing the number of operational regiments or will he admit that the gap between operational tours will have to decrease?

Mr. Robertson

I hear the grinding sound of a great military mind at work. I do not know how the hon. Gentleman comes to that conclusion, which I have never heard from anybody else, about 30 new regiments being required for the British Army. The discussions that took place at Rambouillet about that suggested that we should be looking at a troop commitment by this country in Kosovo for three years after a peace agreement was arrived at. We have an early burden to carry, because we are the framework nation of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, and Lieutenant-General Jackson and his people are doing their job with enormous skill.

The view of my military advisers is that we can sustain what we are doing and that we, along with other elements of the international community, can bring peace back to Kosovo within a reasonable period, but, clearly, that will depend on the outcome of the conflict and the nature of any settlement that is reached.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

We can see different brigades and regiments going in during the build-up of British troops, but there has been no mention of the Yugoslav navy, which is a threat to our Royal Navy, or to the possibility of Marines being deployed. Can my right hon. Friend tell us what has happened to the Yugoslav navy in this conflict?

Mr. Robertson

There is a Yugoslav navy—my hon. Friend is absolutely right—but it has not ventured very far out of any of its harbours. If and when it becomes a threat to NATO forces in the area, action will be taken.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

In the light of the Secretary of State's plans for Kosovo, deployments to other parts of the Balkans and to Northern Ireland and other possible threats, I again urge him to reconsider the plans to run down the Territorial Army in the next few months and the horrifying decision to break up the centre of excellence—5 Airborne brigade—on 1 September. Before he gives me the same glib answer as the Minister for the Armed Forces gave my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), may I remind him that, when the Conservative Government found themselves faced with a crisis in 1982, Margaret Thatcher put her strategic defence review straight on to hold and cancelled the decision to sell HMS Invincible?

Mr. Robertson

The difference is that those previous defence reviews were reducing the size of our forces. Our strategic defence review increases the regular strength of the British Army by 3,300 troops and creates a sixth deployable brigade, which is precisely what the British Army was asking to be able to deploy in such circumstances.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, who has a fixation with the modernisation of the TA, that we set about modernising tshe TA so that it could be used more and could be more relevant, and so that it would, in circumstances such as those that we might face just now, be more involved. That is what the modernisation was all about; it is being successfully put into practice at present and we believe that it is also improving morale inside the TA. The changes suggested in the strategic defence review are designed specifically to allow this country's forces to be able to deal flexibly with situations such as those thrown up by Kosovo.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that he has not changed his mind about the fact that President Milosevic has no veto over any NATO action? Does he agree that it might be necessary for ground troops to go into Kosovo in an atmosphere that is not completely permissive?

Mr. Robertson

President Milosevic will have no veto over what we do in relation to getting the people evicted from Kosovo back safely to their homes. The NATO authorities are, on the instruction of the Secretary-General, re-visiting all of the assumptions that were made earlier this year. There is no question about a forced invasion of Kosovo, but it would be prudent and reasonable for us to look at all the options again in the light of the damage that has been done by Milosevic to Kosovo and the considerable damage done by NATO to the Serb military machine.