HL Deb 18 November 1991 vol 532 cc697-9

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether any, and if so what, reductions in the armed forces of the Soviet Union have been effected in the last six months.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, in the past six months the Soviet ground forces have released at least 25,000 men from service. The Soviet navy has been reduced from 1,140 to 1,079 units and the Soviet air force has made a reduction of about 50 combat aircraft and about a further 300 combat-type aircraft from training roles. There is no evidence of any reduction in the size of the Soviet air defence or strategic rocket forces.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend for that extremely interesting Answer. Will he indicate whether the slow process of reductions in defence expenditure in the Soviet Union is continuing? Furthermore, will he indicate whether the reduction in the naval units consists mainly of the scrapping of obsolete submarines?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, yes, reductions are continuing. The Soviet navy remains a potent threat to NATO. The break up of the Warsaw Pact has not significantly reduced the ability of the Soviet navy to threaten NATO's interests. Modernisation of the Soviet navy is continuing despite a slowdown in the majority of warship and submarine building programmes.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is it correct that defence policy in the Soviet Union is now the responsibility of a council of the defence ministers of the republics? How realistic are we in lumping together the armed forces of the republics and calling them the Soviet armed forces? Will the Minister bear in mind that circumstances are changing rapidly and that a misleading impression can be given about the strength of Soviet forces?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, has made a good point. I suspect that we read the same article in today's Times. The Government support President Bush's proposal for discussions with the Soviets on nuclear command and control arrangements and how they might be improved in order to provide more protection against accidental and/or unauthorised use. Our basic concern is that the Soviet's nuclear fords are safely and securely under central control and that there are no new independent nuclear states. However, it is the responsibility of the Soviet authorities to ensure the security of their nuclear weapons in concert with the leaders of the republics as necessary.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, does the Minister have any information about the extent to which the Soviet Union continues to modernise and develop nuclear weapons?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, your Lordships will be aware that we are making a significant contribution to the recent initiatives of Presidents Bush and Gorbachev with a reduction of our strike aircraft squadrons from 11 to eight, the withdrawal of all our maritime tactical nuclear weapons to land storage and by giving up our battlefield nuclear capabilities.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is there any evidence to show that the newly-established independent Soviet states are not willing to conclude the nuclear and conventional arms reductions mainly because they wish to maintain them in order to keep their independence?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I do not have a full answer to the question asked by the noble Lord. Nuclear policy is a matter for the Soviets and the United States of America.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, what is the position of the nuclear arsenal in the Ukraine and who has the keys?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, in the light of the article published in The Times this morning the situation is somewhat uncertain.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, have the Government made representations to the Soviet governments pointing out that, if they are prepared to ease their crushing maintenance of all kinds of weapons, and cease any further development of nuclear weapons, we and our allies will be encouraged to help their economic situation and the production of food that is now urgently needed for their people?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, as always the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, makes a good point. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister discussed the problem with Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin in Moscow immediately after the coup.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, perhaps I may be forgiven for repeating my question. I asked the noble Earl to what extent he has any information as to how much the Soviet Union continues to modernise and enhance its nuclear weapons armoury. He did not answer that question.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I shall come clean with the noble Lord. I do not have that information with me today but I shall write to him.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is it not the case that one of the most serious issues facing NATO members and indeed the world today is the disintegration of the Soviet Union? Is it not also the case that the greatest reductions in armed forces in the Soviet Union were possibly effected yesterday or the day before by President Yeltsin and the presidents of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan taking control of their own nuclear arsenals? Do Her Majesty's Government know whether President Yeltsin or the presidents of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan carry a suitcase containing a nuclear button? Can the noble Earl shed any light on the problem?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I shall attempt to do so. We welcome President Gorbachev's agreement to eliminate all ground-launched short-range weapons, which is clearly a major step in the right direction. It is Her Majesty's Government's view that seceding republics should sign the non-proliferation treaty and respect their obligations under it.

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