§ 2. Mr. David Evans
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what will be the imbalance between Warsaw pact and NATO forces in (a) tanks and artillery and (b) combat aircraft following the completion in the reductions announced by the Soviet Union in December 1988.
§ 8. Mr. John Marshall
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, if he will make a statement about the relative level of conventional forces in eastern and western Europe.
§ Mr. Tom King
At present, the Soviet Union and its allies retain a substantial advantage in conventional forces and, even after the completion of the unilateral withdrawals and reductions programmes announced by them, and before a CFE agreement is implemented, we estimate that they will continue to have an advantage of some 2.4:1 in tanks and artillery, and 1.8:1 in combat aircraft.
§ Mr. Evans
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he agree that with the changes going on in eastern Europe and with Russia falling apart, the nuclear deterrent and nuclear forces should be maintained? With Libya, Iraq and Iran likely to have nuclear forces in future, does he agree that we should maintain our nuclear presence and, in future, have more conventional forces and more nuclear weapons? What price freedom?
§ Mr. King
We all welcome the tremendous changes that are taking place in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union at present. Obviously, that holds out the prospect of a greater chance of peace and greater stability, and a lessening of tension, armaments and weapons. At the same time, it is clear that there are real dangers and tremendous uncertainties now, and it is necessary to be prudent. Many people think that the present time is particularly dangerous and, while we welcome the end of the sterile and frozen position of the cold war, none the less those changes bring dangers of their own.
§ Mr. John Marshall
Does my right hon. Friend agree that when empires are collapsing, there is a real risk of war? Does he not agree that that fact, and the huge imbalance between East and West, emphasises that any talk of a peace dividend at present is excessively premature?
§ Mr. King
My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) referred to the nuclear deterrent. While we can see what look like substantial and probably irreversible changes in the structure of the Warsaw pact, and of its conventional forces, there is no question but that, under Mr. Gorbachev, there has been a significant strengthening of Soviet strategic nuclear forces and of their capability. We certainly hope that we are moving towards a more sensible and rational relationship between East and West, but we must recognise the very real forces that could be used against us.
§ Mr. Duffy
However satisfactory the outcome of CFE1—and there is no want of goodwill on either side—given current Soviet tank technology and the urgency that the Secretary of State quite properly attaches to a successful third generation of Trigat, there remains a residual need for main battle tanks, although they may well become lighter and more portable. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider acknowledging that publicly, thus reassuring those responsible for preserving the industrial capacity without which we shall not be able to provide tanks in future? I am thinking of those who work at Leeds tank factory.
§ Mr. King
I understand entirely the hon. Gentleman's point, which he put so eloquently on behalf of his constituents. Certainly, arms reductions and the proposals in CFE involve some reductions in tanks on either side, but there is no doubt that, even within that framework, we have certain problems with the age of present tank components, and we need to ensure that we have a modern tank capability. I think that there is a prospect of significant purchases of tanks, and it is worth putting that on record, but I will not be drawn further on exact details.
§ Mr. Rogers
In view of the Secretary of State's expressed concern about the imbalance that will occur after the talks, and in view of the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), will he tell the House when he will make a decision on the Challenger replacement and on the European fighter aircraft? Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are extremely concerned that we shall go outside of Britain to purchase a battle tank and that it will mean the collapse of the tank industry in this country.
§ Mr. King
I think that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the programme that is set up for that. The final milestone is in September and, subject to satisfactory achievement of that, which we obviously hope will happen, we shall sit down and examine all the options and reach a decision as early as we can.
§ Mr. Jack
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his efforts in connection with the European fighter aircraft radar? He will be aware that there is still uncertainty surrounding that project. Will he confirm to the House today that the Government are still 100 per cent. committed to the project, and will he outline the future course of action that he sees being pursued, particularly with the West German Government, to resolve outstanding problems?
§ Mr. King
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He will have noticed that, at the last meeting that I had with Dr. Stoltenberg, the West German Defence Minister, we both reaffirmed the commitment of our two 746 Governments to the EFA project. In respect of the ECR90 radar, developments associated with it, the acquisition of Ferranti Defence Systems by GEC, and any remaining contractual matters, I hope that it will be possible for them to be resolved shortly. I also hope that it will be possible for there to be public confirmation of that by both Governments.