United Nations Commitments

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9 March 1993.

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Photo of Mr Michael Neubert Mr Michael Neubert , Romford 12:00, 9 March 1993

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he next expects to meet the United States Secretary for Defence to discuss international obligations arising from United Nations commitments.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

I expect to meet Les Aspin, the United States Defence Secretary, at the meeting between NATO Defence Ministers and those of the co-operation partners on 29 March. We will take this opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues.

Photo of Mr Michael Neubert Mr Michael Neubert , Romford

If the rather improbable patchwork quilt of a peace plan for Bosnia finds acceptance with all parties, will Her Majesty's Government contribute a contingent of troops to ensure its enforcement? Would it not be regrettable if one consequence of that were a further reduction in the number of Territorial Army battalions, and in our Reserve forces generally?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

If a ceasefire is agreed between the various warring parties in Bosnia, the first and crucial test will be whether it is a genuine ceasefire, respected by the various factions on the ground. We have seen ceasefires in the past which have not in practice turned out to represent any change in circumstances.

The future of TA battalions is an important issue that must be considered on its merits. I assure my hon. Friend that any thoughts on that matter will be given the most careful consideration, because of the importance that we attach to the Reserves.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers , Wallsend

Does the Secretary of State accept that, in order to meet our international obligations within the United Nations, we shall need to maintain our amphibious capability and does he recognise that the helicopter carrier will have a vital role to play in ensuring that we can do so? Does he agree that that carrier, and the order for it, is vital not only for our future defence needs but to secure thousands of badly needed jobs in areas of high unemployment such as Tyneside?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

We have an amphibious capability already, without the helicopter carrier; the question is whether a carrier would provide a viable improvement in that capability. It is an expensive item and it is at present in the programme. We are considering that and other issues in the context of the overall resources available to the Ministry of Defence.

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

Is not it a fact that in fulfilling United Nations commitments in Bosnia, British forces have stripped themselves of the last of their useful utility helicopters? We are desperately short of such helicopters, as the Select Committee on Defence has pointed out. Am I to understand from the previous answer that the Government are considering either the 23-year-old Chinook or the 30-year-old Puma designs as alternatives to the modern and up-to-date EH101?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

We recognise that the helicopter is a most important and essential requirement for the armed forces in the 1990s and I assure my hon. Friend that we recognise that for the Army and other services to carry out their responsibilities, it is important that they should be provided with the number and type of helicopters necessary to deal with the likely challenges that they will face in the years to come.

Mr. John D. Taylor:

Unless the Secretary of State is prepared to distance himself from the statement by the Secretary-General of the United Nations yesterday—that he will ask the United Nations to enforce a settlement if there is no peace settlement in Bosnia fairly soon—is not an urgent review of United States and United Kingdom defence requirements necessary?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

I am very willing to distance myself from any statement that suggests that international forces, including those of the United Kingdom, should be used in a combat role to enforce peace in Bosnia. We are prepared to give serious consideration to the help that we could give if a genuine ceasefire were delivered on the ground in Bosnia, but any proposals for a combat role do not accord with the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Photo of Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes , Wimbledon

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in the absence of a suitable command structure in the United Nations for the delivery of military and humanitarian missions throughout the world, NATO is uniquely well equipped to carry on its excellent work as a force for good in the world and to organise the delivery of such future missions?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. NATO is an institution and an organisation which has tremendous experience of co-operation between countries that are part of the alliance. It has very valuable assets which can be used in co-operation with the international community and I believe that it should always be willing to consider seriously requests for its assets to be made available, when the interests of international peace and stability could be advanced in that way.

Photo of John Reid John Reid , Motherwell North

Despite whatever differences we may have, all parties in the House have learnt one thing from our debates on defence—that any rational defence policy must be based on a match between resources and commitments. Is not it a sad fact that when the Secretary of State meets the United States Defence Secretary, he will have to explain to him, among other things, the fact that Britain, as a permanent member of the Security Council, was unable to deploy ground troops as part of the United Nations relief operation in Somalia? Is not it clear to the Secretary of State that our armed forces, especially the infantry, are still too overstretched? Does not he see that as an indictment of his presidency over the Ministry of Defence and of the way in which the non-review has been conducted?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

I do not need to give any such explanation. The decision not to send ground forces to Somalia was not taken because of the absence of such forces. We could have sent a battalion if we had thought it appropriate. We decided that the best contribution that we could make to Somalia was with RAF Hercules. Our judgment was similar to that of the United States, which decided not to send ground forces to Bosnia—not because they did not have any such forces, but because they believed that there were other ways in which they could make a contribution.