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Nato (Flexible Response)

Volume 122: debated on Tuesday 10 November 1987

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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.