HC Deb 10 May 1999 vol 331 cc8-9
4. Sir Sydnety Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

What plans he has to review his strategic defence review following NATO military action in Yugoslavia. [82581]

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

I have no plans to review the strategic defence review in the light of current events in the Balkans. The MOD's new strategic planning process ensures that there is now a policy-led re-evaluation of defence plans every year.

Sir Sydney Chapman

In the light of the recent strategic defence review, is the Secretary of State satisfied that our armed services can currently sustain two medium-level operations for more than a six-month period, or more than two medium-level operations for up to six months? In the light of recent events—not least in south-east Europe—does he agree that that is the minimum requirement around which our defence policy should be framed for the future?

Mr. Robertson

The key point is that the strategic defence review was designed to look forward at the kind of threats that we would face in the future, rather than endlessly looking at the enemies we had in the past. It was designed so that our forces will be able eventually to deal flexibly with the sort of problems that we face in Kosovo today. I say eventually, because it is less than a year since the strategic defence review was published and its implementation was started, but I am confident that it will give us that flexibility. Kosovo has shown us how valuable and important that exercise was. However, the planning assumptions to which the hon. Gentleman refers are planning tools intended to guide the development of our long-term force structure: they were not intended to provide a template for specific operational commitments. As we explained at the time of the review, we may choose to do more or less, depending on the circumstances.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

May I offer my thanks to the Secretary of State for inviting me to accompany him on his recent visit to the Balkans? As someone who supported both the process and the policy conclusions of the defence review, may I urge him to be realistic about what is necessary for United Kingdom defence in the light of the current and inevitable future commitments in the Balkans? Does he accept that the 3 per cent. annual efficiency saving, which is incumbent on the Ministry of Defence, is not just "challenging"—as it was publicly described by the Chief of the Defence Staff—but is in truth unachievable without an enduring impact on defence capability? Does he further understand that the Government should feel no embarrassment in reviewing the defence budget, but should take the opportunity to demonstrate sound common sense?

Mr. Robertson

The defence review demonstrated sound common sense. The 3 per cent. efficiency target is challenging, but it is not unachievable, because it is already being met. In the event of a Liberal Democrat Government coming to power—that is a long-term vision for the House—and if the right hon. and learned Gentleman held my job, he too would strive for savings and efficiency. He too would seek better value for money and would wish to ensure that in defence we did not throw money at problems, but tried to get the best that we could out of our budget.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

No doubt when the Balkan conflict is over, the Secretary of State will wish to examine how we and our allies respond to future conflicts. Yesterday, Mr. Prodi suggested that the European Union should have an army, and the Government apparently immediately rejected that call. However, is not Mr. Prodi's call wholly consistent with Government policy, especially paragraph 3 of the St. Malo agreement with France, which calls for the EU to have recourse to military capacity either within NATO or multi-national means outside the NATO framework."? What else can multi-national means outside the NATO framework mean if it does not mean what Mr. Prodi said?

Mr. Robertson

First, let me emphasise what the hon. Gentleman skated over—the fact that the British Government have dissociated themselves from the concept that Mr. Prodi put forward. In terms of the development of reasonable military capability inside Europe to deal with situations in which NATO may not wish to become corporately involved, or in the event of the United States of America and Canada not wishing to be involved in European-based operations, I refer the hon. Gentleman back to the Petersberg tasks. They were adopted by NATO for use through the Western European Union and foresaw precisely that form of European-based operation taking place.

The initiative that we took, which was underlined in the St. Malo agreement, related to focusing the minds of all the European countries on the fact that, first, the common foreign and security policy of the European Union will require better decision making; and secondly, if we in Europe want to do anything about the decisions that we take, we must have much better and much more effective defence capabilities. We have directed attention to those two key components; I should have thought that everyone in the House would have supported them.