HL Deb 24 April 1980 vol 408 cc887-9

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what are the prospects of the next generation of main battle tanks being based on a collaborative project with our NATO allies.


My Lords, it has not proved possible to collaborate with any of our NATO allies on the design of a complete tank. We are however keeping in close touch with their plans and we shall take these fully into account when making decisions on future main battle tanks.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Can he say whether the Government will take this present opportunity to introduce the Challenger, and with it the policy, as is carried out by America and Germany, of replacing half the tank fleet every so often, rather than the whole of it every 20 years or so?


My Lords, those two propositions are not necessarily one and the same. The possibility of introducing a new tank has of course arisen as a result of the cancellation of the Persian order for the tanks which were specially designed for use by the Persians. In the light of the growing threat from the Warsaw Pact countries, we are considering the possibility of strengthening our existing armoured capability, and the purchase of additional and replacement tanks is under consideration at the present time. These might well be, and indeed probably will be, modified versions of the so-called Shir II tank. The prospect of having a quarter fleet or a half fleet is one of the issues currently being discussed, and the noble Lord is perfectly right: there are attractions in going for the half fleet replacement policy.


My Lords, the noble Lord discussed this matter yesterday in a debate on supplies and weaponry. I think that the main point which should be emphasised is that we must co-operate fully with our NATO allies.


That is perfectly true, my Lords, and I very much wish to do more than pay lip service to that; we have tried very hard. With regard to the particular issue of tanks, it has perhaps the worst track record of any attempt at collaboration among any that I can think of, in that we spent seven years trying to work out a collaborative venture, with the result that our new replacement main battle tank is now too far ahead in front of us for comfort.


My Lords, following on the question of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, might not our prospects of a common project in NATO for this type of weapon be improved if we were to include in the pool all types of armoured vehicles, such as armoured reconnaissance vehicles, armoured cars, and armoured personnel vehicles? Perhaps we might get one of these if we did it that way.


My Lords, with the greatest respect to my noble friend, I rather doubt it. The technology involved in armoured fighting vehicles and in armoured personnel carriers is of a very different level from that in main battle tanks. The package idea of one nation concentrating on a particular area is being explored for guided missiles, for example. But so far as main battle tanks are concerned, I think that probably the best prospect for collaboration is to try to pick out various parts of the tanks, such as the gun, or the turret, or the engine, or the transmission, or the suspension unit. This is the line which looks most promising at present.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that while recognisant of the problems associated with the subject of standardisation, I wonder whether this would not be a useful opportunity, when we are proposing either the construction of a new battle tank, or a modification of the existing tank, to seek co-operation with NATO in general, collectively, or with some of the individual countries?


My Lords, that co-operation has been sought, and is actively being sought. It has been sought for seven years, but so far not successfully. However, we, like many of our allies, remain undeterred by this lack of success so far, and we are at present continuing with our allies a very active exploration of the possibilities, despite the disappointments in the past.


My Lords, following upon the question of the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, may I ask whether the Minister agrees that it is really highly disgraceful and frustrating that after so much lip service has been paid to the principle of standardisation, of inter-operability, so little progress has been made? Will Her Majesty's Government consider really giving a lead to the other countries in NATO, to work out a longterm policy? The Question refers to the next generation of tanks, but it may well be the next generation but one that we must consider, since research and development start a long time ahead. We really must make up our minds to press our allies to work out a long-term programme which will cover not only tanks but, as has been said, the whole range of weapons required for the Alliance.


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that the political will exists to achieve that aim, and I dare say that I am not the first Minister to have arrived in the department and said that it appears to be an affront that we have had so little success. The fact remains that the political will is strong, but some of the industrial lobbies so far have proved stronger.

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