Orders of the Day — Defence Estimates 1981

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:33 pm on 20th May 1981.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Sheffield, Attercliffe 6:33 pm, 20th May 1981

I want to discuss NATO because the review being undertaken by the Secretary of State should be judged in relation to its needs both now and in the years that stretch ahead. It is easy to overlook the fact that when NATO was founded more than 30 years ago all the world sea and air lanes were undoubtedly and indisputably under Western control. With the exception of the Soviet raw material sources, all other sources of raw materials in the world were indisputedly accessible to the West. Since then fundamental changes have taken place which have profoundly affected the policies, and even the structure, of the Alliance.

If we are to understand why none of the many crises since 1945 has produced consequences, such as those of August 1914 and September 1939, and ask whether the avoidance mechanisms will continue to work during the 1980s, we must consider three main factors. The first is the state of military technology. The second is the state of the balance of power. The third—which is a recent factor and more crucial for most, if not all, of us—is the effectiveness of crisis management.

The first factor is changing. It may, although I think it unlikely, alter the second factor. In contrast to 1918 and 1939 the two sides of the post-war balance since 1949 have been regimented into two relatively tight military coalitions—NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The question in the minds of us all—not simply when we are listening to the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) reminding us of the fears of Henry Kissinger about the window of opportunity opening to the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s—is whether the stability that we have known since 1949 can persist through the 1980s. Certain factors cause certain changes. There is the undoubted decline of the power of the West vis-a-vis the East. There are economic and political changes. The West has economic problems, notably that of energy supply which would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Interestingly enough, there is a growing political assertiveness—even independence—discernible in the European Alliance and on the Continent of Europe.

The litmus tests that can best be applied to the condition of the Alliance are, first, the belief among our European allies that they have more at stake. They believe that they have even more at stake than Britain, not only because of their geographical position but because some of them have stronger trade ties with the Soviet Union. Secondly, there is undoubtedly a more hawkish mood in the United States, especially within the new Administration. Thirdly, the all-important test in the short term for the Alliance is how to reconcile the divergent moods on either side of the Atlantic to preserve the central commitment of NATO to deterrence and to more than detente so as to ensure—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) called for in his powerful speech—more meaningful arms control policies.

How well we cope with the dangerous decade that lies ahead, especially with that window of vulnerability—I prefer to call it that than the window of opportunity—will turn much less on the state of military technology and the balance of power and increasingly on the effectiveness of crisis management.

Until recently NATO relied extensively upon the qualitative superiority of its forces to offset the numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact. We are all aware, even if we do not have detailed information, that that margin of quality in NATO is rapidly disappearing as the massive Soviet arms investment of the 1970s is paying off. Soviet modernisation has given the Soviet Union the capability, at least in the early stages of a war, to threaten NATO's sea lanes of communication with attack submarines and surface combatants as well as Backfire bombers.

It is evident that, for the first time since 1949, we can no longer look for consolation from the United States. Even that country no longer has the resources to cope with all contingencies. The stretch on its resources has been accentuated by the emergence of the new commitment in the Gulf. Now, forces and transport assets that were to have been used in emergencies to reinforce Europe have been assigned to counter threats in the Gulf or in other areas beyond NATO's boundaries. That development is leading inevitably to an increased demand for greater European participation.

Mr. Carlucci, the United States Deputy Secretary of Defence, gave voice in a speech in Munich in February—it is rumoured that it was inspired by President Reagan—to the strong feeling in the United States that European members of the Alliance must contribute more to the common defence of not only Europe itself but of its vital lifelines and raw materials.

I turn to the first danger that I think confronts the Alliance. In some respects the United States wishes to go it alone, but on the other hand it is entering more than hitherto into defence co-operation. We would all prefer to see the United States set much more store on defence cooperation. It is by no means certain that it will do so for centripetal forces are at work. For example, in 1980 a census that was taken in the United States revealed that for the first time 50 per cent. of the American population lived in the West and South-West. I do not have to stress the significance of that to right hon. and hon. Members. There are many hon. Members who will be aware from their own reading of the growing public questioning of NATO in United States literature. That must be countered by better defence co-operation.

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the crisis in the Gulf, the Alliance has evolved the division of labour concept to cope with the new Gulf commitment. Alliance members have recognised in the Gulf a new dimension to their security. Budgetary pressures as well as the Gulf crisis require NATO members to enter into a new division of tasks and to make better use of existing resources.

In opening the debate yesterday the Secretary of State mentioned the second consideration but not the first. To that extent his argument was too narrowly based. It needed to be deployed in a wider context to be fully reflective of current realities as they affect NATO.

When subject to the division of task criterion, Trident falls. A majority of hon. Members, if not all hon. Members, know that within the Alliance outside Britain there are many with good will towards us who view Trident at best as a marginal increment to NATO's nuclear armoury or at worst as a needless duplication. Even on better utilisaion of resources grounds, the Secretary of State has a severe problem in trying to fund Trident and a wide range of conventional weaponry without making apocalyptic choices between the Rhine Army—this is the popular notion—and our ASW commitment in the Eastern Atlantic. I do not think that there is anyone in the House who believes in his heart that the right hon. Gentleman can square that circle.

Something apocalyptic will have to go. I cannot understand how the Royal Navy can be severely cut back given the maritime threat. It was stated only last year in paragraph 328 of the Defence Estimates that in a time of tension or war we in Britain would supply the main weight of forces readily available in the Eastern Atlantic and the Channel. That commitment is then spelt out. However, time does not permit me to remind the House of it. I suggest to hon. Members that they consult paragraph 328.

If the Secretary of State believes that the new commitments to NATO can be met by SSNs and Nimrods, even if their inventories can be doubled within the decade, which is extremely unlikely, he stands in danger of being profoundly mistaken. Any holder of the ancient office at the Admiralty which the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) held with such distinction until yesterday could not have reacted in any other way. I was especially glad to hear the warm tribute paid to the hon. Gentleman by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East. My right hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Ashford and the hon. and learned Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) will know that any hon. Member is fortunate if he is appointed to that office. I shall continue to try not to be subjective. However, as long as the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State insist on maintaining the appearance of an all-round contribution by the United Kingdom to the Alliance instead of a balanced contribution based upon balanced priorities that reflect the emergent philosophy of division of task as well as greater cost-effectiveness, Britain's defence posture will remain unconvincing within the Alliance and its defence policy will remain confused.

It is noteworthy that in President Carter's letter to the Prime Minister confirming the missile purchase deal he applauded the right hon. Lady's statement that the Polaris successor force will be assigned to NATO and that your objective is to take advantage of the economies made possible by your co-operation to reinforce your efforts to upgrade the United Kingdom's conventional forces. Is that really assured? The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State may no longer be well placed to persuade the new Washington Administration better to understand European perspectives and problems as they currently change—notably, the unrelenting pressure on defence spending and the need to relieve it by RSI and offset. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) suggested from the Opposition Front Bench, there is no two-way street when the imbalance is about 3:1 against the United Kingdom and 20:1 against our allies in Europe.

The crucial obligation that lies on the Government, although they are scarcely in a position to discharge it, is to persuade the new Administration headed by President Reagan to change their present negative attitude to arms control. The announcement in Rome a fortnight ago that the United States is ready to resume nuclear arms control talks with the Soviets is welcome. However, it is striking confirmation of the success of America's European allies in being able at long last to push the United States in a direction that causes senior members of the Reagan Administration to have serious reservations.

Indirectly the announcement is a tribute to the remarkable growth of the nuclear disarmament movement in Western Europe over the past year. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force talked freely about disarmament but showed no awareness of it. When he refused to give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart) he demonstrated that he does not appreciate that in principle the Washington-Moscow negotiations on TNF will take place within the SALT framework. That is an extremely important qualification for it will ensure that there are talks on both halves of the nuclear equation—theatre and strategic.

Without the campaigning of the nuclear disarmers and the impact that that has had on a number of European Governments, it is unlikely that the new Reagan Administration would have moved to talks this quickly. Most United States policy makers wanted a longer delay while the United States rearmament programme made its impact on the East-West balance. I still find it extremely difficult to understand why the United States has to wait until September before Mr. Haig has his first meeting on TNF with his Soviet counterpart.

Instead, the new Administration in Washington, with the active encouragement of London, should acknowledge the fundamental importance to the Alliance of reestablishing momentum in arms control negotiations, for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East called in his powerful speech. Nothing could do more to preserve the cohesiveness of the Alliance on this side of the Atlantic, especially in Holland, Belgium and Germany, than early and substantial progress on arms control negotiations. That is why the well-being of the Alliance turns on the effectiveness of crisis management—namely, on leadership rather than military technology or the state of the balance of power.