Orders of the Day — Defence Estimates

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Ian Gilmour Mr Ian Gilmour , Norfolk Central 12:00 am, 12th December 1973

My intention this afternoon is to begin with a fairly brief account of the recent NATO meetings and one or two aspects of the Middle East crisis. I shall then say something about Northern Ireland. The second half of my speech will be a rather miscellaneous rag-bag of items. I shall not have anything to say about the Nugent Report on Defence Lands since my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House last Thursday said that is is hoped to arrange for a separate debate on that matter after Christmas. Nor shall I say very much about the Royal Air Force. I shall leave that to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force when he winds up.

The most dramatic development since our last defence debate in May has, of course, been the Middle East war. I should like to consider very briefly two aspects: namely, the oil crisis and the lessons that the war may hold for our future equipment programme and tactical thinking.

The Services, like the rest of the community, are coming to grips with the shortage of oil. If he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, my hon. Friend will deal with this in more detail at the end of the debate. I would just like to reassure the House that we are able to carry out essential training and that this does not present an immediate problem. We have already put into effect a great number of measures designed to conserve fuel.

There are obviously lessons to be learned from the Middle East war. Here some of the most modern equipments in the inventories of the Warsaw Pact and of NATO were used against each other under operational conditions which are much more akin to those we could expect in Europe than, for example, the conditions in Vietnam. However, it is also clear that there are very considerable differences of terrain and climate and, perhaps equally important, of the degree of training and skill possessed by the troops that operated these sophisticated equipments.

There are those who have the clarity of vision to assimilate the lessons of the war and are ready to translate them, at a cost of many millions of pounds, into decisions on equipment. There are others —here I must include all the experts in the Ministry of Defence—who feel that the task is highly complicated and will require a great deal of painstaking effort before we begin to draw firm conclusions. It may be that as a result of the 1973 war there will be a change in military tactics or weaponry as revolutionary as the changes which followed the battles of Arianople, Crecy, Ravenna or Cambrai. But I suspect that the results will not be quite so dramatic. I assure the House that we regard the task of assessing the lessons to be learned from the recent war as of the highest importance.

I come now to NATO. The House will have read the communiqué of last week's Defence Planning Committee. I was encouraged to hear from my right hon. and noble Friend of the businesslike and friendly atmosphere which characterised this meeting. Nevertheless, the Middle East war and crisis has undoubtedly put the alliance under strain, such crises at least have the effect of galvanising the energies of NATO Ministers. We can be sure, for instance, that NATO's procedural arrangements relating to consultation, which are anyway kept under continuous review, will now have several sets of unusually sharp eyes cast over them. We must also recognise the obvious truth that common interests which bind the alliance together are much stronger and much more vital than other areas which may be potentially divisive.

In preparing for today's debate I subjected myself to re-reading the speech I made in May. I said then: The maintenance of confidence is critical to NATO's well-being. The present happy situation of mutual trust did not arise by accident but by hard work, and we need to continue to work hard in the cause of confidence. This means full and meaningful consultation and frank speaking between allies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th May 1973; Vol. 856, c. 760.] Those words are even more valid today.

It is worth mentioning the concern the NATO defence Ministers expressed in Brussels last week that, despite generally welcome developments in the political field, the Soviet Union and its allies have continued to increase the scale of their military programmes and to strengthen and improve their forces, and that the current military capability of the Soviet Union is well in excess of its need to defend its own territory.

Equally—this is something which I know my right hon. and noble Friend is much concerned about—the NATO Ministers recognised the vital need to develop public understanding of these facts and of the necessity for the West to maintain a resolute defence effort.

It would not be fitting for me today to give a detailed report of the various NATO meetings or of the Eurogroup meeting which preceded them, but there is one matter affecting relations within the alliance on which I should like to say a word. I have no need to remind the House of the internal debate within the United States over the last year or two over the levels of United States forces in Europe or the pressures within Congress for change in the distribution of relative defence burdens within the alliance. The enactment last month of the Jackson-Nunn amendment to the United States 1974 Defence Procurement and Manpower Authorisation Bill, calling on the United States administration to reduce American forces in Europe proportionately to the extent that the United States is unable to recover the balance of payments cost of these forces, served to bring these difficulties into sharper focus.

At the discussion in Brussels last week there was a frank recognition of the problems facing the United States administration and a desire on the part of the European partners to respond positively, although not necessarily in exactly the same way in each case. Equally, I believe there was a good understanding on the part of both our American and our European friends that Britain, which in many ways is in a similar position to the United States in maintaining substantial forces in Germany in pursuance of our treaty obligations, could not be expected to contribute towards the budgetary or balance of payments costs of United States forces in Europe.

Various negotiations are currently in progress between East and West. The most important from the point of view of defence are the MBFR talks in Vienna. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. David Walder) was right in pointing out in our last debate the lack of public interest in these talks. Undoubtedly, the issues are complicated and not easily understood, but they are of fundamental importance to the future of us all. I hope I will not be thought unduly pessimistic if I say that I believe that there are great dangers inherent in the talks as well as great opportunities. The danger arises because discussions, once started, may generate their own momentum and NATO security might be put at risk if the bargain contained in the outcome was not right.

I do not think there are many hon. Members who are informed on these matters who would not recognise that if our relative security is to remain unimpaired, force reductions will need to be asymmetrical.