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Defence

Volume 122: debated on Tuesday 10 November 1987

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Air Defences

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to strengthen United Kingdom air defences.

A major modernisation of the United Kingdom's air defences is now well advanced, including the build-up of the Tornado ADV force, the commissioning of improved United Kingdom air defence ground environment systems, and the purchase of Boeing E-3 airborne early warning aircraft.

I am pleased to announce that an order for a seventh E-3 aircraft has now been placed with the Boeing aircraft company. This will provide a significant enhancement over the six-aircraft fleet ordered earlier this year and a robust capability to mount continuous airborne early warning patrols. The cost of this aircraft will be accommodated within the provision for the defence budget announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 3 November.

Has the Secretary of State seen recent press reports and the "World in Action" programme describing the appalling state of our air defences? Does he agree that that is the real cost of Trident?

In the first place, the state of our air defences is not only very good, but considerably better than it has been for many years. Secondly, the Trident programme has been in our costings for a very long time and that is coining down in cost, not increasing. Neither part of the hon. Lady's question holds any water.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the Government came into office in 1979 we found to our horror that no provision had been made in the finances for the air defence part of the Tornado programme or for making the Hawk aircraft capable for local defence, and we inherited the Nimrod project?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The current dramatic improvement in the RAF's capability has been achieved although no funding had been laid ahead when we came into office in 1979. That position has been put right by the Government.

Following the tragic deaths of two pilots in my constituency just over a week ago, is the Secretary of State prepared to consider a major review of the low-flying programme, as its contribution to the effectiveness of our air defences must be reduced by the enormous loss of life and expensive equipment that has been sustained?

We believe that any loss of life is too much; the loss of even one pilot a year is one too many. We try to keep those distressing accidents to an absolute minimum. However, this year's accidents, however tragic, are no worse in number than last year's accident figures, which were the best for a very long time. We keep the position carefully under review and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not take any of those events lightly.

All Conservative Members will endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend about the skill and determination of the Royal Air Force. What progress has been made in sorting out the electronic difficulties relating to the Tornado—the Foxhunter system?

My hon. Friend is right to state that there were some difficulties about that. After prolonged negotiations with the company we have agreed a way to go ahead with the Foxhunter radar, which I am convinced will produce an effective instrument for the aircraft when it comes into service.

In view of the recent news that the Americans are to cancel their order for the Harrier aircraft — that will obviously increase the unit costs of the production of the Harrier — and in view of the substantial cuts in that part of the Government's Estimates, how will that affect our purchases of the Harrier and our air defences in the near future?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. The Harrier AV8B, which is the American version, is an important Anglo-US collaborative project. The RAF is firmly committed to its side of it, the Harrier GR5, which will enter service next year.

During my recent visit to Washington I made it clear that it would be a serious blow to Anglo-US collaboration if the United States cut orders. I was assured, however, that no decision to do so had yet been made, and I understand that that is still the position.

Chemical Weapons

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what estimates his Department has made of Soviet chemical weapons capabilities.

The Soviet Union commands the world's largest and most sophisticated chemical warfare capability. It has produced and stockpiled a wide variety of chemical agents and munitions, and has a massive tonnage of nerve agent alone. It also has specialist troops dedicated to the chemical warfare role. Soviet servicemen are trained in the doctrine and tactics of chemical warfare, and Soviet land, sea and air forces maintain a variety of modern systems for delivering chemical attack.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the efforts by the British Government and their leadership in the Geneva talks are widely welcomed? Will he confirm that, as the process of nuclear and chemical weapon disarmament continues, the Soviets' attitude to the elimination of all chemical weapons will be a crucial touchstone in relation to how we judge their general attitude to disarmament?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The United Kingdom is playing a very active role in the 40-nation conference on disarmament in Geneva. We chaired the ad hoc committee responsible for negotiations in 1986, when considerable progress was made on the difficult subject of verification.

The subject of negotiations provides a good example of what happens when one side unilaterally renounces a type of armament. We have done that since the 1950s. However, so far there is no sign that the Soviet Union has, as a result, lessened any of its efforts on the chemical warfare front.

Have not the Soviet Government offered a treaty banning all chemical weapons, and also offered to open up their manufacturing capability to inspection, while, at the same time, the President of the United States is still demanding additional funds for the deadly chemical binary weapon?

The hon. Gentleman has a very distorted view. The Soviet Union did not admit until six months ago that it had any chemical weapons. The United States has not made any chemical weapons, until now, for 17 years. During that time the Soviet Union has built up its capability vastly. While saying that they would like a worldwide ban—as we would—the Soviets have done exactly the reverse. We want a worldwide ban on all chemical and biological weapons. If the Soviet Union wants that, it can have it, as far as we are concerned.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is rather alarming that the Soviet Union has behaved in such a Machiavellian way?

Is it not some consolation, however, that the BAOR is probably better equipped to counter chemical weapons than are any of the other NATO allies?

My right hon. and learned Friend is correct. While it is extremely difficult to equip troops to survive chemical weapon attacks, our efforts are generally admired and considered pretty effective. However, the general, overriding impression is that the West wishes a total ban on all chemical weapons, and, as soon as the Soviet Union is prepared to agree to that, we can have it.

As Soviet and Warsaw pact representatives are viewing Operation Purple Warrior, is it possible for the Secretary of State to ask for some reciprocity, so that we can see how Soviet troops are trained in chemical warfare? Could he also give us some further information on how well our troops are protected against it?

Our troops have the capability to protect themselves against chemical weapons, and most of our new equipment is devised with that in mind.

I understand that Operation Purple Warrior is proceeding very well and that the observers from the Warsaw pact countries are receiving every possible help to observe the exercises. We are entitled to observe their exercises when they are of a sufficient size to merit it, and we shall, of course, be glad to do so.

Nato Nuclear Planning Group

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation nuclear planning group meeting in Monterey.

At the nuclear planning group meeting in Monterey on 3 and 4 November Ministers discussed a variety of security matters pertaining to NATO's nuclear forces.

In particular, we welcomed and fully supported the agreement in principle between the United States and the Soviet Union for the global elimination of land-based INF missiles above the range of 500 km and looked forward to an INF treaty being signed and ratified in the near future.

We also reaffirmed that the strategy of flexible response would remain the basis of the Alliance's security and stated our determination to take whatever measures might be required to safeguard the effectiveness, responsiveness and survivability of NATO's nuclear forces, while maintaining only the minimum forces necessary for credible deterrence.

A copy of the official communiqué for the Monterey meeting has been placed in the Library of the House.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the impending INF deal represents a triumph for NATO's dual-track approach? Does he also agree that it would not have been possible if the approaches that were advocated by the Labour party had been pursued?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct on both points. This represents a triumph for the dual-track approach which was devised by NATO and put into effect against tremendous opposition from many circles, particularly the Opposition. If it had not been for that stand, we should not now have the agreement. It is an absolute vindication of the policy that we have been following since 1979.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is very little point in negotiating away ground-launched cruise missiles, only to bring them back again in an air-launched or sea-launched form? Does he also accept that there is a powerful case for improving the effectiveness of NATO's manned aircraft by providing them with a stand-off weapon that would ensure greater penetrability against Soviet air defences?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's second point. As for his first question, the objective of all the negotiations and of the agreement that we very much hope is about to be signed is to reduce the number of nuclear warheads in Europe. I am convinced that the agreement will achieve that aim. When that has happened we shall have to make sure that our remaining armaments are credible and that they hold together as a coherent weapons system.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the presence in Europe of 326,000 American servicemen is the best guarantee that we shall not become decoupled from the United States? Does not this extraordinary agreement, which changes the defence landscape of Europe, make it even more important to start to address the imbalance between the Warsaw pact and NATO forces—in particular, its 2:1 preponderance of tanks and its 3:1 preponderance of artillery?

My hon. Friend is correct on both points. The presence of American forces in many guises in western Europe is not only a guarantee of United States solidity with its European and free world allies against any threat, but shows that the United States takes the view that the first line of defence of the United States is in western Europe. The Government fully support what we hope will he the next stage—a START agreement on a reduction of up to 50 per cent. in strategic systems. During that period we hope that a major start will be made on dealing with the conventional imbalance and our long-standing demand for a worldwide ban on chemical and bilogical weapons.

The Government have consistently maintained that the reason for the deployment of cruise missiles was the Soviet Union's deployment of SS20s. Under the INF agreement the Soviet Union will give up three times as much nuclear weaponry as the West. May we now take it, therefore, that we shall hear no more nonsense about compensatory adjustments in the wake of an INF' agreement? I hope that the Secretary of State will make it absolutely clear that there will be no gap in NATO's defences.

There has been no so-called nonsense from me about compensatory adjustments. There are two separate strands here. One is the implementation of the decisions that were taken four years ago at Montebello for the modernisation and bringing up to date of the existing nuclear weapons that are part of the West's armoury against attack. That process is only half completed. It must be completed as soon as possible.

We fully support the INF deal. and once it is concluded it will be normal and natural for NATO to review its weapons systems to ensure that they make sense, are coherent and hold together. Any necessary changes will have to be put forward as proposals to the allies before they are agreed.

I welcome the present negotiations, but will my right hon. Friend remind the House of Sir Winston Churchill's words in his last speech to Congress in, I think, 1951, in which he said that we should never abandon our atomic weapons until we were certain — indeed, more than certain — that we had other methods of defending ourselves?

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. The object of the arms reduction process is to reduce the number of atomic weapons and warheads on the ground in Europe on both sides. At all times we must ensure that our security is preserved. For that reason we must ensure that we have a credible, flexible response to offer to any attack at low or high level, and that is our objective.

Norway And Denmark

6.

To ask the Secretary for Defence what British forces are currently committed to the reinforcement of Norway and Denmark.

The 3 Commando Brigade, as part of the United Kingdom-Netherlands amphibious force and the United Kingdom mobile force, has the reinforcement of the northern region as its principal role. The United Kingdom also makes a sgnificant contribution to the ACE mobile force, which has options to deploy there. In addition, RAF Jaguars are specifically assigned to the northern region and a number of other RAF aircraft could also be deployed there.

Will the Minister say whether he plans any cuts in that United Kingdom mobile force? Is he aware that if he does the Danes' response may be that NATO is no longer worth the effort?

I do not think that that is a necessary conclusion. We welcome the contribution of the Danes, and we should welcome a greater contribution from them. With regard to the United Kingdom mobile force, it is generally accepted that the current use is not the best one. That point was explained fully a few months ago by my predecessor in answer to the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies). That matter is presently under assessment at SHAPE, but no decisions have been taken.

Were the British Government consulted before the Canadians decided to withdraw from their commitment to deploy a brigade to northern Norway? Will my hon. Friend say whether he will consider the possibility of compensating for that deficiency by deploying British troops on the northern flank? Paradoxically, the Canandians seem about to augment their presence on the central front.

As my hon. Friend knows, these matters are extensively discussed among allied Governments. As to Britain being required to fill the role of the Canadians if they withdraw their CAST force, we have received no request from them or NATO to do that. As I said with regard to the United Kingdom mobile force, these matters are currently under consideration within NATO.

As the Norwegians can no longer depend on the CAST brigade, will the Minister say whether the Government will formally commit the Royal Marines to the defence of Norway? If not, who will be responsible?

It would be unwise for me to prejudge the consideration that these questions are being given within NATO. It is in that context that our force is part of SACEUR's strategic reserve.

My hon. Friend is well aware of the activities of the Royal Marines in Norway, but will he continually hear in mind the need to increase its airborne assault capability for use not only in the northern sector but in other parts of the world?

Like my hon. Friend, I have the highest regard for the Royal Marines and their capability for amphibious operations. The Purple Warrior exercise that is currently under way has demonstrated their professionalism. My hon. Friend should not underestimate the scale of equipment and ships that are available, but we are anxious to ensure that we maintain our capabilities.

Armilla Patrol

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what point defence the Royal Navy's frigates and destroyer currently on Armilla patrol have against sea-skimming missiles.

The ships serving on the Armilla patrol are provided with self-defence equipment relevant to the range of threats in the region.

Is the Minister saying that the three ships do not have the last-ditch point defence system that is needed for them to defend themselves against sea-skimming missiles? Why were the Phalanx-equipped type-42s or batch 3 type-22s not sent out?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we rotate the ships on the Armilla patrol. They have a variety of layers of air defence, including long-range surveillance radar, medium-range Sea Dart missiles and point defence Sea Wolf missiles, close-in weapons systems such as Phalanx and Goalkeeper, and also soft-kill measures such as jammers and decoys. [Interruption.] It may be a matter of amusement to Opposition Members, but the protection of our ships in the Gulf is a matter that we take seriously.

None of our ships is likely to have the whole range of all the available weapons systems. I should like to add a final point—[Interruption.]—if I am allowed to do so. It is not in the interests of the safety of our ships in the Gulf for us to comment on the likely form of response to particular kinds of attack.

Were not there recommendations, arising out of the Falklands war, that type-22s and type-23s should urgently be fitted with vertical-launch Sea Wolf defence systems? Are such programmes somewhat behind schedule? In the interests of the Royal Navy, could they be brought forward?

I appreciate the importance of Sea Wolf, as does my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement who is pursuing the matter. We hope that the systems will be available and operative as soon as possible.

Where does the Minister get terminology such as "soft-kill"? How many perverters of the English language are employed in the Ministry of Defence to dream up such expressions? How much is the Armilla patrol costing the British taxpayer? What contribution is he asking for from multinational oil companies such as Shell and Esso for protecting their ships?

The Armilla patrol is part of the Royal Navy's operations. We do not separately cost individual aspects of it. I should have thought that taxpayers — individuals and companies — would be perfectly willing that part of the revenue that they pay to the Government for income tax, corporation tax and other taxes should go to maintain freedom of British shipping in the Gulf.

French Minister Of Defence

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he next plans to meet the French Minister of Defence.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the inter-service co-operation that has flowed from the talks is warmly to be welcomed? What are the ultimate objectives of his talks with the French?

Certainly, co-operation on the level of exercising and liaison between British and French forces is developing well and is increasing every year. The ultimate objective is to have closer defence relations with our friends across the Channel, in the hope that we can have mutual equipment collaboration with them and, of course, have close liaison with their forces.

Now that President Reagan has called for a more equal relationship between the United States and Europe within NATO, is it clear that the United States would welcome greater Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear matters and, in particular, would not impair our entering into a joint collaborative project to extend the range of the ASMP—air sol moyenne portée—to 400 km or beyond?

Certainly our friends in the United States would greatly welcome closer relations between ourselves and the French and between ourselves and other NATO allies. We should be glad to discuss a French air-launch missile in case there is any way in which we and France can collaborate in this important matter.

When my right hon. Friend meets the French Minister, will he point out to him that there is still a chance for France to join in our plans for the European fighter aircraft? Will he bear in mind also the fact that, years ago, the French not only refused to join in plans for this modern aircraft, which is the most advanced in the world, but did their best to torpedo the scheme?

The French fighter aircraft Rafale is a matter for the French Government to deal with as they consider best from their point of view. As we have made clear, the European fighter aircraft is being considered by ourselves and our partners—not including the French—and I am glad to say that discussions of the next stage are proceeding well.

While on the subject of collaborative projects, will the Minister confirm that his discussions with the French have included the NFR-90? Will he confirm that the project, which seems to be the best hope for the warship building industry in this country, will go ahead and that yesterday's report in the Daily Mail, maintaining that Britain is about to back out of the project, is wrong?

I have seen the reports and I confirm that at my next meeting with the French Minister—as at my last meeting with him—I expect the NFR-90 to be one of the matters for discussion. The Government's concern about the programme has been related to the method by which to address the next stage, and we are still negotiating with our allies about that. There is no truth in any suggestion that we have pulled out of the project.

In his discussions with Mr. Giraud, will my right hon. Friend resist the blandishments of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) in suggesting that there should be co-operation over nuclear deterrence? Does he agree that if that happened it would mean that the Trident submarine deterrent was deployed at a much later date, with the result that the United Kingdom would be undefended once Polaris became obsolete?

I should make it clear that although I have discussed a whole range of defence subjects with my French colleague, there is no proposal for any joining together of the French and British deterrents, which operate separately. At the moment I cannot envisage circumstances in which it would make sense for only one deterrent to be operated or for the other to be expected to operate on our behalf. Further co-operation is a very good idea, but it falls short of amalgamating the two systems.

Nimrod Airframes

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what use is currently being made of the Nimrod airframes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement
(Mr. Tim Sainsbury)

We are considering a number of possible uses for the Nimrod airborne early warning aircraft. In the meantime they are being held in storage.

Instead of leaving the 11 Nimrod airframes to rot, why does the Secretary of State not convert them for use as maritime surveillance aircraft or, indeed, use them to supplement the five aging and antiquated Shackleton aircraft and so recoup some of the taxpayers' money that has been spent?

We are considering a wide range of possibilities for the aircraft's use. We are anxious to make the right decisions and we are taking time to ensure that we do.

Will my hon. Friend consider much more seriously and urgently the need for more maritime patrol aeroplanes? Is not the greatest threat facing the Supreme Command Atlantic the submarine threat? Is not that threat becoming more sophisticated, with boats that are ever quieter and deeper-diving? Is there not an imperative need to enhance the maritime patrol aircraft availability of our Alliance?

My hon. Friend has made some valid observations about Warsaw pact submarines. The points that he has made will be among those taken into account when we reach our decision on the future of the airframes.

Trident

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to what precise extent the operational efficiency and viability of the Trident missile is dependent on United States maintenance and supplies.

As said during the defence debate on 27 October. arrangements were made in 1982 for United Kingdom-owned missiles to be processed at the United States facility in Kings Bay, Georgia. This processing will take place at the same time as the missile-carrying submarine is undergoing major refit. The arrangement with the United States is, of course, intended to maintain the operational efficiency of the missiles and thus of the United Kingdom deterrent. I am fully satisfied that this aim will be achieved and that the return of the missiles to the United States in no way affects the continuous deployment of the United Kingdom deterrent force, which is at all times under the operational control of Her Majesty's Government.

Has the Secretary of State read the Ministry of Defence papers from the 1940s when the United Kingdom was last involved in a lend-lease arrangement with the United States? Will he admit to the House that we are in a position of complete dependency on the United States for maintenance and that the independent nuclear deterrent is a charade?

I would have thought that there was every evidence that, during the last war, in the 1940s the United States lend-lease arrangement was a lifeline for this country. However, there is no connection between that arrangement and the Trident system where, at all times, Britain owns all the missiles that it needs for its system.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while Trident is on station, and between the major refits on the submarines, the remaining submarines will be serviced in Scotland and that that will be good for Scotland and for jobs in Scotland, because the missiles can be serviced in the tubes?

That is correct. At present the Polaris submarines are refitted at Rosyth in Scotland and the Trident submarine will also be refitted at Rosyth. The only difference is that the missiles will be refurbished in Georgia and not Britain.

Is it not an indictment of the Government that, while billions of pounds can be found to pay for Trident, the National Health Service relies on charities to buy the equipment that it needs to keep people alive? Is that not something that the Government have to face up to and explain?

Fortunately, under this Government not only are we able to find enough money to keep our defences in good shape, our security safe and peace in our time, but we are able to increase substantially the funding for the National Health Service, which is to be seen in falling waiting lists and better service generally throughout the country.

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the progress of the Trident programme.

The Trident programme continues to make good progress. It is on time and within budget and planned to enter service in the mid-1990s.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the cost of the purchase of Trident has fallen dramatically since the first decisions to go ahead were announced? Will he inform the House of the contractual commitments of the Trident programme, for example up to the year 1992? Does he agree that the Labour party's plans to scrap it and spend more money on conventional defence will look even less sensible in 1992 than in 1987?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I was able to announce earlier this year, when I announced the annual recosting of the Trident programme, that not only had there been a substantial reduction in its cost because of favourable exchange rates, but that there had been a real reduction in its cost because of economies of about £546 million. Therefore, the cost of the Trident programme is going down, not up. Fortunately, the Labour party's plans are unlikely ever to come into effect. Any idea that the Labour party had, however unrealistic, of cancelling Trident and using the money on something else is now completely impossible because by the earliest time the Labour party could form a Government, the Trident programme would be substantially completed.

Is it not a fact that the whole world is how hoping that the scaling down of intermediate nuclear missiles will take place and that following that there will be a scaling down of the strategic missiles owned by the Soviet Union and the United States? Is it not also a fact that in those circumstances the Trident missile would be just a status symbol in the hands of this country, costing at least £10 billion, and that it will not mean anything if the great missiles of the other two nations are not scaled down?

I share entirely the hon. Gentleman's aims and views on the reduction of nuclear missiles in the world, both intermediate and strategic. It is the hon. Gentleman's sadness that he is having to rely on a Conservative Government to achieve the reductions, rather than just talk about them. Of course, it is the case that the reductions in nuclear weapons are designed to lessen tension in the world, but we get no further forward by pretending that in some way we can do without any defence or security for ourselves. That is simply unrealistic.

Defence Contracts

12.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proportion of defence contracts in the latest year for which figures are available were subject to competition; and how this compares with 1979–80.

The proportion of defence contracts placed by competitive tender or otherwise by reference to market forces in 1986–87 was 53 per cent. The comparable figure for 1979–80 was 30 per cent.

Has my hon. Friend made any assessment of the impact of the competition initiative in reducing defence costs, and has that had any effect on the proportion of contracts that have been awarded to smaller defence contractors?

It is difficult to make an accurate assessment of what the price would have been for any particular contract if it had been awarded other than by reference to competition. However, we are confident that substantial savings are being achieved, and a number were listed in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". On the percentage of contracts going to smaller firms, which we regard as important, we are striving through the small firms initiative to ensure that the maximum number of small firms have a real opportunity to participate in work for the Ministry of Defence.

Is the Minister aware that much the more meaningful comparison between now and 1979–80 in respect of defence contracts is that, unlike then, a gap is now opening up between commitments and resources, which some analysts compute as being as high as £8 billion? When he gets back to his Department, will he ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State why there was no mention of that in the Defence Estimates?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government are spending substantially more on defence than would have been spent under a Labour Administration. Furthermore, we are ensuring that we get the best possible value for money in our expenditure.

Nato (Flexible Response)

13.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's strategy of flexible response.

NATO's strategy of flexible response remains fully valid and continues to be a sound basis for the security of Alliance members.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the credibility of that doctrine depends on our maintaining our defence capability at all levels—in the nuclear and conventional spheres, on land, in the sea and in the air? Does he agree that unilateralism is the enemy of multilateralism?

I agree entriely with my hon. Friend that the unilateralist campaign has obstructed not only the improvement of our own security, but progress in arms control. Now and at all times, the security of the United Kingdom and of our NATO allies is the prime concern of our policy.

Will the Minister confirm that that flexible response includes taking compensatory measures to introduce nuclear warheads and air and sea-launched missiles to compensate for those that have been removed under the INF talks? Will he give the House the categorical undertaking that any such compensatory measures will not result in a greater number of nuclear weapons being committed to Europe than is currently the case with INF weapons?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, we intend that the INF agreement, if and when it is achieved, will result in fewer nuclear weapons in Europe. On force adjustments, it is always necessary for us to deploy our assets, whether conventional or nuclear, in the way that is most effective for our own defence. We shall continue to do that in the light of changing circumstances, including arms control.

Will the Minister join me in acknowledging the role played by the mercantile marine in our flexible response to every past conflict? Does he share my astonishment that, in Exercise Purple Warrior, which is taking place in the south-west of Scotland and is being observed by east European countries, virtually the entire Merchant Navy presence has had to be brought in from foreign countries because of its systematic rundown by the Government? Does he agree that, from a defence as well as a civil point of view, the destruction of the British Merchant Navy and the virtual elimination of the Red Ensign is one of the Government's badges of shame?

I have a high regard for the British merchant marine, just as the hon. Gentleman has. What I do not accept is the assumption that it is being run down in a dangerous or unsatisfactory way. May I point out that the reason why the ships taken up from trade for Exercise Purple Warrior came from other countries in Europe was that they were willing to make ships available on more competitive terms than British operators. Had it been otherwise, we would have been glad to take British ships.

In a previous answer the Secretary of State mentioned the Montebello agreement and what is described as modernisation. Will the Government now support the West German Government in pressing for talks on the removal of battlefield nuclear weapons at the same time as talks on conventional weapons because, very often, those battlefield weapons are present because of the conventional imbalance?

I have no doubt that we shall have to address seriously the whole question of conventional balance in the light of the arms control agreement that appears now to be in prospect. The question of battlefield nuclear weapons comes into that context, but I certainly do not think that it should come first.