Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:40 pm on 19th April 1999.

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Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence 9:40 pm, 19th April 1999

I have a very limited amount of time in which to speak and I want to respond to some of the points that have been raised.

Many hon. Members referred to ground forces and the question of an opposed invasion of Kosovo. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon mentioned that, but, unlike other Conservative Members, he also recognised the comments of the Leader of the Opposition when the Prime Minister made his statement about this matter. It is worth remembering the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition on 23 March: Although we support the use of ground troops to implement a diplomatic settlement, we shall not support their use to fight for a settlement. He asked the Prime Minister to confirm that those strikes are not a prelude to a ground war and that ground troops would be used only to implement a diplomatic settlement".—[Official Report, 23 March 1999; Vol. 328, c. 163.] It is worth Conservative Members' remembering what their leader said.

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Casale), the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife all raised that issue and suggested that we should have deployed troops to engage in operations on the ground. They suggested that if we had done so, we could have averted the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. They are wrong to imagine that a ground campaign would have prevented the suffering of innocent civilians, but NATO's air campaign has succeeded in disrupting Serbian military operations in Kosovo.

Day by day and night by night, we are cutting into Milosevic's military capabilities. The air strikes will continue until NATO's objectives are met, and there is every chance that the Serbian leadership will soon see sense and decide that the game is no longer worth the candle. If it does not, and if the Serb forces maliciously continue to expel the Kosovar population and seek to hold the territory regardless of the strategic position, NATO will increasingly direct its fire against them.

So far as a ground force is concerned, NATO is of course committed to providing a force to go into Kosovo once the Serbs back down, and part of that force is already in Macedonia, ready to move at short notice. NATO will be updating its planning for that force to take account of the new situation in Kosovo, including the ravages inflicted by Milosevic, the effects of NATO air strikes and NATO's new demand since Rambouillet that all Serb forces should withdraw immediately.

The United Kingdom has already decided to send more of that force to Macedonia so as to be ready to deploy as soon as Milosevic backs down. We are determined that an international military force will be deployed in Kosovo once air strikes have done their job, so that the Kosovar people can return to their homes. At the end of the day, Milosevic will not have a veto.

A number of hon. Members referred to the humanitarian crisis that is now afflicting the countries in and around the Balkans as a result of the expulsion of the Albanians. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made a powerful speech this evening, following his visit to Macedonia. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley spoke with her usual power about the plight of those who have been left the casualties of these dreadful events.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, asked about humanitarian air drops to the thousands of displaced people left inside Kosovo. I say to him and others who have asked that question—it is a good question which demands an answer and we have spent a long time considering it—that air dropping of food and other supplies to internally displaced people in Kosovo is not an easy option.

The many insurmountable problems include accurately locating where those people might be hiding and seeking refuge, and accurately and safely dropping supplies to them. There would be hazards to NATO planes if they were to undertake such a mission, and there would be a potential for the supplies to fall into the hands of the Serbs, who might use them as a lure to the refugees. We would also face the sheer difficulty of moving the amount of aid required. We continue to examine the options on that.

I put this powerful point to the House: the responsibility for the human tragedy inside Kosovo, including the miseries being inflicted on those who have been displaced, lies purely with the Serbian leadership, and Slobodan Milosevic in particular. He will be held to account for what happens to those human beings. Frankly, those who are in danger will cease to be in danger only if the campaign of air strikes organised by the 19 Governments, the 19 nations, the 19 Parliaments of NATO is a success.

Hon. Members have raised the issue of the costs of the campaign, which I cannot pretend will not be significant. The estimated costs will be substantial, but I ask the House to consider the cost of not acting. What would be the cost to all of us on our continent and, indeed, beyond, if we were to stand by, wring our hands, and allow such ethnic cleansing to go ahead and succeed? I estimate that, up until 8 April, the costs that have been incurred total some £17 million, excluding the costs of replenishing stocks of ordnance expended.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) mentioned the cost of humanitarian assistance partly being met by the Department for International Development. I say to him, as I say to those who ask about the defence budget, that, of course, access to the contingency reserve will be sought by the Ministers concerned in the normal way.

A very important issue has been raised both in the House and elsewhere: how NATO selects and clears the targets assigned to aircraft. At the outset of the air campaign, NATO Ministers collectively agreed to certain categories of targets—the first of which was, self-evidently, the Yugoslav air defences. We subsequently agreed to widen the range of targets to include strategic assets such as bridges, barracks and headquarters.

Within those broad categories, an assessment is made of priorities. One of the main factors in reaching decisions is the possibility of causing civilian casualties or damage to civilian buildings—known as collateral damage. More than in any other previous campaign we have used precision-guided munitions to ensure that such damage is avoided.

I personally approve some of the targets, but for most, I have now delegated the decisions to the operational commanders. That allows them to make decisions quickly and to respond to changing requirements. However, I retain the ultimate authority and responsibility for those decisions.

Following a number of tests, the Royal Air Force was able to demonstrate that it had the ability, with the use of dumb bombs, to bomb accurately through clouds with Harrier GR7s. It has subsequently undertaken a number of successful operations against particular targets. Such targets are obviously considered very carefully to minimise—