HL Deb 13 July 1989 vol 510 cc417-20

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the latest NATO estimate of the rate of production of Soviet tanks and how this compares with each of the years since President Gorbachev came to power in 1985.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, our latest estimate for Soviet tank production is 3,500 for 1988. We assess that that output rate has remained constant since Mr. Gorbachev came to power in 1985.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in two recent BBC broadcasts and in an ITN broadcast as recently as last Friday publicity was given to the fact that the Soviets had reduced a few old Russian tanks to scrap and no publicity has been given to the fact that that leaves 51,000 tanks in their hands? Is it not strange that Gorbachev, who has talked of peace for four years, has taken no action to reduce the most offensive weapon in the Russian tank armoury?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to point out that the Warsaw Pact tank fleet numbers something like 51,500, while the NATO tank fleet numbers approximately 16,400. Clearly the recent reductions in the Soviet and Warsaw Pact tank fleet to which he referred are but a fleabite compared with the whole fleet.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that both the Question and the Answer may be dated in view of the announcement this morning that unexpected progress has been made in discussions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact on cuts in this area? If the reports in the responsible press that unexpected progress has been made are correct, could not the Question and the Answer be harmful and hinder that process:

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I do not think that we make any contribution to the successful prosecution of arms control negotiations—which of course we very much hope for—by distorting or concealing the true picture. The fact of the matter is that the Soviet preponderance in conventional forces of all kinds, particularly main battle tanks, which are the subject of my noble friend's Question, is considerable. Clearly we need to address that enormous Soviet preponderance if we are to achieve balance and verifiable measures of arms control.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we welcome the submission of the NATO proposals in Vienna today and the possibility of progress being made? Does he think that there is any real chance of progress in that field in the next few years? If there were agreement on conventional weapons, would the Prime Minister support it or would she stand aside as she has on short-range nuclear weapons reductions in Europe in the past?

Lord Trefgarne

No, my Lords. We have made clear that we very much support the NATO proposals in respect of conventional arms control measures. We shall do our best to see that progress is made in that area and shall support all the proposals being made in the Vienna forum to which the noble Lord referred.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, can the noble Lord help us to understand the tone of his answers? What is gained by pointing out that President Gorbachev has not done something which he has not said that he would do? Is not the important fact that he has said that he will reduce the tank and other forces to an agreed balance at a much lower level? Is not that what the United States responded to yesterday with new American plans for use at the convenional forces reduction talks?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, Mr. Gorbachev has said a great many things but done rather less. We now hope that the proposals which he has made can be turned into firm proposals which we can accept. We shall hasten to deliver our side of the bargain.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, does the noble Lord seriously suggest that Mr. Gorbachev, by abandoning the Brezhnev plan, has done nothing?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as I was able to point out to your Lordships the other day in answer to a similar Question, Soviet production of tanks—to take today's Question—has not changed by so much as a single jot since Mr. Gorbachev came to power. The noble Lord might be interested to know that the Soviets still have five tank factories, all operating at the usual rates.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can my noble friend say on this matter of saying and doing whether Mr. Gorbachev has said anything about chemical weapons which he holds and if so whether he has done anything?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, until two years ago the Soviet Union disclaimed any ownership of chemical weapons. More recently they have admitted, I think, to some 50,000 tonnes of chemical and biological warfare agents. We assess that they have many times that quantity.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that that is a very sensitive aspect when we are talking about the Soviet Union and what Mr. Gorbachev is trying to do? Does he accept that we must be extremely realistic about the situation? Having said that, does he agree or disagree with what the President of the United States said only two days ago in Poland with regard to his discussions with Mr. Gorbachev on what they hope to achieve in the field of disarmament? While we can perhaps say at this stage that nothing has been done, we believe that both the president and Mr. Gorbachev will come to an agreement whereby there will be a genuine, realistic reduction in all kinds of arms.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Lord refers to his hopes for the future which I share. What I must do is point out the present situation, which I am afraid represents no change from that which we have seen for a number of years past. If progress is now to be made, we warmly welcome it and shall hasten to play our part.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, when the noble Lord referred to a flea bite, was he referring to the withdrawal of tanks, including the most modern types, from East Germany? Do they not number more than 5,000? Is that not a fair start in any case and something not to be derided?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord has been misled by some of the propaganda. The number of tank reductions is, I think, about 200 or 300, and that clearly makes little impact on the 51,500 that the Soviets possess.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, will my noble friend say how the Soviets' current production of 3,500 new tanks a year compares with NATO's production? If it is considerably less, is it not true to say that the gap between NATO tank strength and Soviet tank strength has grown steadily since Mr. Gorbachev came to power?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, last year—the fourth year of Mr. Gobachev's period in office—Soviet tank production was, as I have said, some 3,500. NATO tank production was about 800. In other words, Soviet tank production was about four and a half times that of the West.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, will the Minister explain how he can give us those precise figures, bearing in mind that we have always been told that the Communist countries do not reveal those figures? The Minister has precise figures. Will he tell us how he obtains them and how accurate they are?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the figures come from a variety of sources.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that, since Mr. Gorbachev came to power, the prospects for disarmament have vastly improved and the possibility of Soviet aggression in Europe has greatly diminished? When will the Government and some of their supporters start looking pleasant facts in the face?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we are looking the facts in the face, if the noble Lord will forgive me for saying so. I certainly recognise that there is a much better atmosphere in the arms control fora with which we are concerned. We warmly welcome that improved atmosphere. Certainly a variety of new proposals are being made that clearly bear careful examination, which we shall give them. But the facts of the matter to which the noble Lord referred are that the Soviet preponderance in conventional weapons remains enormous and their rate of production appears to us to be quite unabated.

Back to