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Nato Defence Ministers

Volume 972: debated on Tuesday 30 October 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence, when next he intends to meet other NATO defence Ministers.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I have given to the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans).

Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am that certain NATO countries are not honouring the defence obligation in the way that this country is? When he next meets his NATO colleagues, will he draw their attention to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and seek to ensure that the defence contribution made by other countries matches that made by this country?

Yes, I think that I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We attach much importance to the long-term defence programme of NATO with its envisaged 3 per cent. annual increase. It so happens that in recent years this country has not increased its defence as much as some of us in this House think we should have, and therefore we have a certain amount of leeway to make up. However, we attach the utmost importance to it, and we hope that all the allies will adhere to the programme to which they have agreed.

Bearing in mind what the right hon. Gentleman said about the build-up of the Soviet defence capability, would it not be preferable to use the moves by the Soviet Union to discuss with that country ways and means of reducing arms in Europe instead of trying to do something which we cannot achieve, and that is to match the Soviet defence capability? That is an impossibility. Would it not be better to be realistic and discuss with the Soviet Union means of reducing the arms in the area?

Naturally the Government are keen that that should happen. Negotiations have been going on in Vienna now for about six years with that objective in mind. Unfortunately the disagreement arises because those on the Eastern side are not prepared to accept that the imbalance is what we know it to be. Our objective is to try to get a reduction.

In response to the President's speech, we are carefully considering the matter with the Alliance. We wish to take any and every advantage it is possible to take of that speech. However, we must not lose sight of the realities of the situation. We hope that the imbalance may be reduced so that we may get more into a position of equivalence.

When my right hon. Friend meets his NATO colleagues will he emphasise to them the relevance today of the so-called geographical guidelines of NATO, with a view to their eventual removal?


asked the Secretary of State for Defence, when next he will meet the other Defence Ministers of NATO.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply which I gave earlier today to his hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Evans).

When the offer to negotiate comes, should not the British Government put it to the test rather than kick it in the teeth, as two of their prominent members have done? Secondly, on the subject of the overwhelming Soviet dominance propaganda we heard this afternoon, is the Secretary of State aware that the Institute of Strategic Studies, a neutral body, has this month in its military balance document shown that between East and West in Europe there is

"something very close to parity"
in the strength in nuclear weapons?

It also said that the trend in recent years has been steadily against the West. The build-up on the other side has been greater, unfortunately. We are studying what is said. Any advantage to be taken from it we shall try to take. There are negotiations available in Vienna all the time, where there is a forum already in existence where the matter can be discussed.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm—is it not a matter for grave concern?—that since the West has been engaged with the Soviet Union in the MBFR discussions in Vienna since 1971, the Soviet Union has so reinforced its conventional capability that, even if an entire Soviet tank army of three tank divisions were removed from the group of Soviet forces in Germany, there would still be several hundred more Soviet tanks today than at the start of these talks?

My hon. Friend is right. That is the position. For that reason, it is extremely difficult to make progress. The facts must be agreed by both sides. Our objective is to achieve a balance. However, at the moment there is a reluctance on the other side to come anywhere near anything that could be described as balance. My hon. Friend is right in his assessment.

Will the Minister reflect on his earlier answer? Is he not aware that one of the reasons for the disappointing progress of arms control is precisely that both sides insisted that they could negotiate only from a position of strength—a position that is logically unattainable for both of them? While there is no perfect time to come out of an arms race, surely it would be better to talk seriously to the Russians about the proposal before we stuff another 400 missiles into East Anglia—a move to which the Russians will certainly respond in kind.

Serious discussions have taken place and will take place again. When we talk about negotiating from a position of strength, there is a difference between the massive excess of strength on the other side and the capability that exists on this side. The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that that imbalance cannot be accepted or allowed to continue from the point of view of the West. We wish to rectify that imbalance. If serious discussions and negotiations can achieve that balance, that is splendid. That is what we want to happen. We shall do everything we can to make it happen.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that when he meets his NATO colleagues he will, with them, insist that when SALT II has been ratified we shall be closely involved with our NATO colleagues in the SALT III discussions so that our interests are protected? Secondly, does he not think that the interest shown in these NATO matters deserves an urgent and early debate in the House?

It is premature at the moment to consider any detail about SALT III. Naturally it is important that our capabilities should be preserved.

I welcome a debate. I have already been in touch with my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House and the Patronage Secretary in the hope that it might be possible to arrange a debate in the House. I know that there are heavy pressures on the programme. For myself, I should very much like to have a debate on the subject.