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Chemical Warfare

Volume 82: debated on Tuesday 2 July 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the preparedness of United Kingdom forces within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to withstand chemical warfare attacks.

In the light of the formidable Soviet offensive chemical weapon capability, we afford a high priority to protective and defensive measures for our armed forces against chemical attack, and to training service men in their use. We keep our defensive measures under review in the light of the threat. A new respirator, new protective clothing and new detection and warning equipment for our service men are being brought into service.

Does the Secretary of State not consider that the presence of Soviet chemical weapons and the fact that the United States seems to be gearing up with binary weapons reflects a situation of the most severe awareness and acuteness in terms of possible operations in the European theatre? What view does he take of the threat and of the fact that NATO seems to be mounting opposition in the most aggressive fashion? Can we not try to reach an agreement between NATO and the Warsaw pact countries for a complete ban on chemical weapons?

The hon. Gentleman is supporting a policy which this Government have been energetically pursuing. The difficulty is that the Soviet Union has 300,000 tonnes of chemical agent, which is far in excess of any defensive capability that it needs. The Russians train aggressively with it, modernise it and keep it up to date. Whereas Britain has made a one-sided gesture by getting rid of its chemical capability, the Soviet Union has gone in precisely the other direction. We are still pursuing the primary objective of a negotiated arms control arrangement, but it takes two to reach such an agreement. The Soviet Union has been singularly unforthcoming.

Is it not a fact that if the policy of deterrence, which the Conservative party unanimously supports, is carried to its logical conclusion we must, in order to deter the Russians from continuing to hold these disgusting chemical stocks, regretfully build up some of our own?

There is logic in my hon. Friend's question, and it is this logic that has led to renewed interest in this debate in the United States of America. We are still trying to persuade the Soviet Union that the best possible way forward is by negotiation. However, one cannot go on for ever trying to negotiate with people who modernise their capabilities.

To reduce the likelihood of chemical warfare, does the Secretary of State agree that it would be better if the Government continued to oppose the deployment of the "Big Eye" bomb, the 155 mm chemical shell, or any other chemical weapon by the United States forces, or those of any NATO country? Is it not a fact that the United States already has chemical warfare facilities in Europe?

The Americans have an aging capability. The question is whether they should allow that capability to become so out of date as to have no deterrent capability while the Soviets constantly modernise and increase their stocks. The intriguing question is from where the Opposition think the real threat to the peace and security of western Europe comes.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all the items of our chemical defensive capability that he has listed are made at Porton Down in my constituency? Does he agree that a higher priority should be given to the provision of a defensive capability for our front-line troops?

I hope my hon. Friend will accept that we are giving very high priority to the defensive capability. That is why I listed the systems that are being introduced. There is no question but that this is overdue and necessary and that we attach very great importance to it. The issue is whether one encourages and supports the United States over the potential modernisation of its aging capability. By far and away the best way forward is to reach an arms control arrangement whereby these weapons are removed. That is what we wish to happen, and that is what we are trying to do. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues have put great energy behind that endeavour. The question is how long one can go on trying to persuade the Soviet Union to reach arms control arrangements when it will not come to such arrangements but constantly increases its offensive capability.

Is it not a fact that the only nation to use chemical weapons on a massive scale has been America in Vietnam? It defoliated over one third of that country, and it has not recovered to this day from that defoliation. Can we not use our prestige to try to bring America and Russia together in some way? We should also tell the truth about America's use of chemical warfare in Vietnam.

The hon. Gentleman must realise that the threat that this country faces comes from the existence of an increasing Soviet capability. That is the issue that a Secretary of State for Defence must address. It is no use saying that the Americans are behaving in some way reprehensibly, when they are not at the moment developing their offensive capability but are trying to secure arms control negotiations. The Opposition must address themselves to the point at which they are prepared to abdicate their responsibility as politicians potentially in government and risk the lives of those in the front line who might defend us.

If it is proved that the wearing of nuclear and biological kit by our service men reduces their efficiency to no more than 40 per cent., does that mean that we would require two and a half times the force level of the Soviet bloc if we were to take it on on equal terms, ignoring the benefit of the nuclear umbrella?

My hon. Friend asks an interesting question. The follow-through, however, is unrealistic, because we have other means of deterrence to secure the peace. We cannot envisage a simple exchange on a nuclear level. The issue that we must address is clear — how we persuade the Soviets to reach arms control agreements with us that will avoid the development of a western chemical capability.

The first point of the Secretary of State's statement that our troops will have the best equipment available will be welcomed on both sides of the House. We support further research into that method of ensuring the safety of our troops. We also support the vigorous action that has been taken by Her Majesty's Government on a chemical warfare treaty, but upon which point of verification have those negotiations broken down? Was it not the Americans who drew back at the last minute?

No, Mr. Speaker. The Americans have made one of the most generous and comprehensive offers of complete openness, which could provide a way forward. Both sides have not yet reached an agreement. We constantly try to put forward new initiatives. There is no question but that the Government are playing an energetic role. The problem will not go away. If we do not succeed in reaching such an agreement, there is then an obligation placed on those responsible for the freedom and defence of the west to address the fact that the Soviets are not just failing to negotiate, they are modernising and enhancing their aggressive capabilities.