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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 he expects next to meet his NATO colleagues.

I shall be meeting some NATO defence Ministers at the nuclear planning group in mid-November and will meet them collectively at the ministerial meeting of the defence planning committee in December.

When the right hon. Gentleman next meets his NATO colleagues, will he discuss with them the Prime Minister's recent Luxembourg speech? Will he ascertain from them whether they feel that that speech has strengthened the hands of the hawks or the doves in the Kremlin?

Certainly the issues and facts underlying my right hon. Friend's speech will be discussed at NATO, and I shall take the opportunity of discussing them with my colleagues, the other Ministers of defence. The situation facing the Alliance is of a mounting military capability in the Warsaw Pact, and that is something that the NATO Alliance must consider most carefully and take into account.

I accept that the Government have made it clear that they would endorse the SALT II agreement, but will my right hon. Friend assure the House that our loyalties in NATO will remain unshakeable, whether or not the SALT II agreement goes through Congress?

I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. On the work that is of most immediate concern to NATO, we believe that what we have in mind is necessary whether or not the SALT II agreement is signed.

When the right hon. Gentleman discusses with his NATO colleagues the speech of President Brezhnev in Berlin on 6 October, will he be urging them to accept at its face value the offer that was made and try to make some small but reciprocal offer so that the move will not be dismissed in the cavalier fashion adopted by the Prime Minister in Luxembourg?

It is not right to say that the offer was dismissed. It has been welcomed so far as it goes, and the Alliance is considering it carefully. However, even if the proposal by President Brezhnev were to be fulfilled, the imbalance in favour of the Warsaw Pact countries would still remain preponderant, massive and most significant.

Contrary to the implications of both questions by Labour Members, is it not a fact that, even if 1,000 obsolete Russian tanks were removed, 20,000 would remain as opposed to the 7,000 or 8,000 of the West, and that if 20,000 troops were removed a short distance away that would still leave a balance of just under 1 million for the Warsaw Pact to 600,000 for the West? Is it not a fact that, happily, among the NATO Ministers at the moment there is complete unanimity of view on the need to modernise and re-equip our forces in Europe?

Yes. It is the case, as my hon. Friend says, that even if this undertaking were fulfilled the preponderance on the Warsaw Pact side would be enormous—about three to one in tanks, and well over 100,000 more troops on the other side. It is the view of the NATO Alliance that, in the face of that situation, which naturally we hope will alter and that a greater balance will be brought about, we should react accordingly and modernise our equipment.

Of course there can be no doubt about our very firm commitment- to NATO, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that theatre nuclear modernisation, which he will be discussing in November and December, must be linked to very positive arms control measures? Does he agree that these will lack credibility if SALT II is not passed by that time? Will he make this clear to the American Administration, and will he consider carefully whether modernisation needs to go ahead in December if SALT II is not then through?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that arms control is a most important element in our defence policy. The objective is, naturally, that the level of armaments on both sides should be lowered, but the trouble at the moment is that the imbalance on the other side is massive, and the Warsaw Pact countries have recently brought into their equipment and their line very modern and technically efficient nuclear capabilities which are not at present matched on the NATO side. We have to take that into account, but that does not alter the fact that arms control is an important part of our defence.

If the Warsaw Pact countries, and particularly the Soviet Union, made a realistic offer of reductions, which would bring the two sides more or less into balance, that would be a totally new situation. However, until that happens, we must be realistic about our capabilities because we believe—I think that our predecessors took the same view—that one cannot negotiate in this vitally important area except from a position of strength. If one tries to negotiate from weakness, one is unlikely to be successful. Therefore, it is important for us to remember the facts and realities of the existing situation.

This question comes up again twice, and I hope that questions and answers will then be brief.