HL Deb 18 February 1982 vol 427 cc646-8

3.12 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government to what extent the armed forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact are equipped to use chemical weapons.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the only country which is a member of NATO and whose armed forces are equipped with such weapons is the United States, which has a limited and aging national capability. NATO's efforts in this field have concentrated on the development of defensive measures to counter the Warsaw Pact's massive offensive chemical weapon capability.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, has the Minister noted the recent statement on chemical warfare of President Reagan, and would he not agree that we are now faced not only with a nuclear arms race and a conventional arms race but a race in producing and stockpiling new chemical weapons? Is it quite impossible to persuade the Russians and Americans to try to deal with this particular problem separately from their other disputes, and discuss it together?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I have of course seen President Reagan's statements on this matter and I can confirm that our belief is that the USSR has a stock of these weapons, much of it deployed in forward stores, of over 300,000 tonnes, and that by any estimation it has well over 10 times the amount of the USA. President Reagan has taken the decision that under those circumstances he has to restart developments in certain areas, and possibly production, but no decisions about deployment have been taken, and if they were to be taken the allies would be consulted. So far as arms control is concerned, I share the noble Lord's hope, and I do not believe it will be for want of trying by NATO and the United States if no agreements in this area, as well as other vitally important areas, are reached.

Lord Wynne-Jones

My Lords, is the Minister able to give the House some indication of the evidence on which the statement is made that the Warsaw Pact—by which I take it he means very largely the Russian forces—are equipped with 300,000 tonnes of chemical warfare equipment in forward areas? That statement has been made on several occasions but so far no evidence for it has been produced.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I did not say the whole 300,000 tonnes—and we believe the stocks to exceed that—was in forward areas, but a good part of it is deployed forward. As to answering the noble Lord's question about how information of that kind is derived, I do not think it would be in the national interest to do so, but we are entirely clear that the statement I made is not an over-statement.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, has the noble Viscount seen the evidence in the newspapers relating to the use of chemical weapons by Soviet backed Ethiopian forces in Eritria only this week? Will he make urgent inquiries of our ambassador in Addis Ababa to find out whether these horrifying weapons have in fact been used against civilians, and publish the evidence so that noble Lords may have access to it?

Viscount Trenchard

I am not briefed on that particular topic, my Lords, and I will write to the noble Lord.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether there is any evidence of biological weapons being in the possession of the Warsaw Pact? Does he agree that the arguments for having offensive nuclear power to deter a nuclear strike by the enemy is exactly parallel with the necessity to have offensive chemical weapons by NATO to deter the use by the Warsaw Pact of their weapons?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, we have no evidence of the possession of biological weapons by the Soviet Union, the production of which was banned under the 1972 treaty. There are worrying reports in relation to the possible use of micro-toxins in South-East Asia, which are being investigated, and we are helping at Porton Down in the analysis of certain substances. So far as deterrents are concerned, I do not think I would fully agree with my noble friend, and I never have, that we must have an exact balance of everything; we must have an adequate degree of deterrence so that any aggressor will face an unacceptable cost if he were to start an aggression.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the whole House will be relieved to know that he does not go along entirely with the policy of mutual suicide advocated by his noble friend? Would he undertake that under no circumstances will the Government agree to store American chemical weapons in this country?

Viscount Trenchard

I must totally contradict the implication of the first part of that supplementary, my Lords; I am entirely in line with Government policy in this area, which has been stated time and again, and I certainly will not give the noble Lord any assurance, in an uncertain future, on exactly what we should do in any particular arm.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

My Lords, has my noble friend read, and if so would he commend to the attention of the House, an article on chemical warfare in the current issue of NATO's 15 Nations, which explains in a most disquieting but authoritative manner the present situation regarding chemical weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain?

Viscount Trenchard

I thank my noble friend for drawing my attention to that article, my Lords.

Earl Cathcart

My Lords, would the Minister agree that there is considerable evidence, as indicated by their deployment in tactical exercises, that the Warsaw Pact regard the use of chemical weapons as part of conventional warfare?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I would rather not go further than I already have. The size and deployment of the stocks I think tell their own story. Whether one calls chemical warfare conventional or not I find hard to say, and in many respects I find it as unpleasant as any nuclear weapon.