HC Deb 10 May 1999 vol 331 cc11-2
6. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

What assessment he has made of the availability of weapons systems equipment to British forces in the Balkans. [82583]

The Parliamentary UnderSecretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)

UK forces deployed on NATO operations in the Balkans have the right equipment for the job.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

I am delighted to hear that, but I have to bear in mind that, further to the question put to the Secretary of State for Defence by the right hon. and learned Member for NorthEast Fife (Mr. Campbell), the Government must also consider the 3 per cent. efficiency savings. Can the Secretary of State confirm—he may not be able to give us a cast-iron guarantee, although I would like that—that nothing will stand in the way of supplying new, up-to-date and more efficient equipment, designed to suit conditions in the Balkans, so that equipment will not compromise the efficiency of the British armed forces serving there?

Mr. Spellar

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman is pleased to hear that our forces have the equipment that they need. After all, the previous Conservative Government bought most of it. The basis of the SDR was to re-equip and realign our forces to meet the new post-cold war environment. We have an on-going major programme of re-equipping our forces, with many examples of new equipment, some of which have been mentioned today.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Would the Minister care to comment unequivocally on claims in the press, on the internet and through e-mail channels that the Royal Air Force is using cluster bombs and runway-denial weapons involving sub-munitions that are identical in character to landmines, and that British personnel are involved in training the Kosovo Liberation Army to deploy landmines, something that would clearly be in contravention of the Ottawa agreement? Is my hon. Friend able to give an unequivocal response to such accusations?

Mr. Spellar

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity firmly to deny all those rumours, which, as he said, are coming through a variety of media. I confirm that we are using RBL755 cluster bombs, which are not prohibited under the Ottawa convention or under the Landmines Act 1998.

Mr.John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Is it not the case that weapon systems are only as effective as the training and the commitment of the crews who have to operate them? Should we not pay tribute to our aircrews in the Balkan theatre, but realise that thet always need the most modern navigation and attack systems and the most modern weapons and defensive aids? When the Minister is procuring sophisticated aircraft, will he ensure that there is that full complementarity that makes systems fully effective?

Mr. Spellar

As I said earlier, we are continuing to make further investment in the equipment that is available to our forces. I obviously join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the skill and dedication of our forces. In some instances, there has been an argument about whether they have been able to hit certain targets. They make an enormous effort in that regard. On a number of occasions, they have not bombed a target because conditions did not give them the assurance that they would be able to hit it. That is a tribute to their professionalism and the success that they have had, and to the very limited collateral damage that has been inflicted.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What in heaven's name is the justification for using cluster bombs against targets such as the centre of Nis?

Mr. Spellar

We are not, as my hon. Friend says, using cluster bombs against the centre of Nis. That was a mistake. We are using cluster bombs as effective munitions against the military concentrations of those troops who are committing the most appalling atrocities in Kosovo. We are degrading their ability to do that and taking out a considerable part of the Yugoslav forces and the armed police. I would have thought that to be a legitimate objective, and one that the great majority of hon. Members would endorse.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

The Minister is aware that, both outside the Chamber and inside it, a number of reservations have been raised about the effectiveness of the air campaign to fulfil NATO's political objectives. Most recently, General Naumann, the retiring chairman of the NATO military committee, raised some deep reservations about the campaign. Can the Minister confirm that the United Kingdom chiefs of staff and the Chief of the Defence Staff had no such reservation when they advised the Government about the air campaign prior to 23 March?

Mr. Spellar

Yes, General Naumann's comments were taken very much out of context. As I have said, the air campaign has had a major effect in degrading communications, the ability to move and quite a bit of the materiel of the Serbian forces. This is a policy of the Government and of the armed forces, who are pursuing it extremely effectively. Given the hon. Gentleman's previous experience, I am slightly surprised that he seems to be trying to drive a wedge between service chiefs and the Government on the matter, when we are united in pursuit of the objectives.