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Weapons Systems Equipment

6. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): What assessment he has made of the availability of weapons systems equipment to British forces in the Balkans. [82583]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar): UK forces deployed on NATO operations in the Balkans have the right equipment for the job.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: I am delighted to hear that, but I have to bear in mind that, further to the question put to the Secretary of State for Defence by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), the Government must also consider the 3 per cent. efficiency savings. Can the Secretary of State confirm--he may not be able to give us a cast-iron guarantee, although I would like that--that nothing will stand in the way of supplying new, up-to-date and more efficient equipment, designed to suit conditions in the Balkans, so that equipment will not compromise the efficiency of the British armed forces serving there?

Mr. Spellar: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman is pleased to hear that our forces have the equipment that they need. After all, the previous Conservative Government bought most of it. The basis of the SDR was to re-equip and realign our forces to meet the new post-cold war environment. We have an on-going major programme of re-equipping our forces, with many examples of new equipment, some of which have been mentioned today.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): Would the Minister care to comment unequivocally on claims in the press, on the internet and through e-mail channels that the Royal Air Force is using cluster bombs and runway-denial weapons involving sub-munitions that are identical in character to landmines, and that British personnel are involved in training the Kosovo Liberation Army to deploy landmines, something that would clearly be in contravention of the Ottawa agreement? Is my hon. Friend able to give an unequivocal response to such accusations?

Mr. Spellar: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity firmly to deny all those rumours, which, as he said, are coming through a variety of media. I confirm that we are using RBL755 cluster bombs, which are not prohibited under the Ottawa convention or under the Landmines Act 1998.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Is it not the case that weapon systems are only as effective as the training and the commitment of the crews who have to operate them? Should we not pay tribute to our aircrews in the Balkan theatre, but realise that they always need the most modern navigation and attack systems and the most modern weapons and defensive aids? When the

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Minister is procuring sophisticated aircraft, will he ensure that there is that full complementarity that makes systems fully effective?

Mr. Spellar: As I said earlier, we are continuing to make further investment in the equipment that is available to our forces. I obviously join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the skill and dedication of our forces. In some instances, there has been an argument about whether they have been able to hit certain targets. They make an enormous effort in that regard. On a number of occasions, they have not bombed a target because conditions did not give them the assurance that they would be able to hit it. That is a tribute to their professionalism and the success that they have had, and to the very limited collateral damage that has been inflicted.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What in heaven's name is the justification for using cluster bombs against targets such as the centre of Nis?

Mr. Spellar: We are not, as my hon. Friend says, using cluster bombs against the centre of Nis. That was a mistake. We are using cluster bombs as effective munitions against the military concentrations of those troops who are committing the most appalling atrocities in Kosovo. We are degrading their ability to do that and taking out a considerable part of the Yugoslav forces and the armed police. I would have thought that to be a legitimate objective, and one that the great majority of hon. Members would endorse.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The Minister is aware that, both outside the Chamber and inside it, a number of reservations have been raised about the effectiveness of the air campaign to fulfil NATO's political objectives. Most recently, General Naumann, the retiring chairman of the NATO military committee, raised some deep reservations about the campaign. Can the Minister confirm that the United Kingdom chiefs of staff and the Chief of the Defence Staff had no such reservation when they advised the Government about the air campaign prior to 23 March?

Mr. Spellar: Yes, General Naumann's comments were taken very much out of context. As I have said, the air campaign has had a major effect in degrading communications, the ability to move and quite a bit of the materiel of the Serbian forces. This is a policy of the Government and of the armed forces, who are pursuing it extremely effectively. Given the hon. Gentleman's previous experience, I am slightly surprised that he seems to be trying to drive a wedge between service chiefs and the Government on the matter, when we are united in pursuit of the objectives.

Nuclear Weapons

9. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): What discussions have taken place between his Department and the Foreign Office on the long-term implications for the international nuclear disarmament process of NATO's decision not to redefine the role nuclear weapons play in NATO's new strategic concept. [82586]

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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson): My Department and the Foreign Office maintain close dialogue on all aspects of nuclear policy. At the Washington summit, NATO's strategic concept was endorsed by all 19 members of the alliance.

Mr. Chaytor: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and welcome the small signs of progress at the Washington summit in the redefinition of nuclear weapons policy. Could not the very slow pace of the progress towards the objective of reducing nuclear weapons worldwide put at risk the negotiations on the non-proliferation treaty taking place this week, as well as the long-term future of the comprehensive test ban treaty?

Mr. Robertson: I hope not. By reassessing our own nuclear stocks--we now have the smallest stockpile of nuclear weapons of any of the five nuclear weapons states--and through the confidence-building measures that we have introduced--the reduced state of alert of our nuclear submarines, and the fact that our missiles are detargeted--as well as through the other measures in the strategic defence review, we have given a clear idea of the direction in which we believe that the world should go. Therefore, our commitment to retaining Trident, which was the policy on which my hon. Friend and I fought the last election, should be, as the manifesto stated, accompanied by a greater degree of urgency in arms control negotiations. In that respect, we have shown by actions, not by words, that we mean business.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Does the Secretary of State agree with the estimate by the CIA that, by 2015, almost any country will be able to deliver an intercontinental ballistic missile? Does he therefore follow the argument that, in addition to the ability to respond with nuclear force, we need to invest in a credible defence mechanism?

Mr. Robertson: I do not think that the CIA was suggesting that every country would have its own intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015. However, the matter of ballistic missiles causes concern across the world, and that is why it is kept under constant examination. As and when the technology is available to deal with that threat, we will examine it carefully. In the meantime, we must step up the discussions on arms control, so that countries will not feel the need to acquire such weapons systems.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): Did my right hon. Friend read the communique of the strategic concept summit, which stated that the characteristic of nuclear weapons is that


Surely whoever wrote that was not paying attention to the fact that there is a war going on in the Balkans, and that nuclear weapons were doing nothing to prevent it. That does not give much confidence in the seriousness with which NATO countries regard the role of nuclear weapons. Should that not be addressed in the not-too-distant future?

Mr. Robertson: Nobody is pretending that nuclear weapons can prevent all conflict, but the deterrence value of our nuclear weapons is proven and is supported by the

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vast majority of the British people. As I said before, the strategic concept and the language in it, over which there were long and sometimes painful discussions, were subscribed to by the Governments of all 19 countries.

Kosovo

10. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What contingency plans NATO has made for the stationing of British land forces in Kosovo. [82587]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson): It was agreed at the NATO summit that the Secretary-General of NATO and the military planners should update their planning. In the meantime, a build-up of NATO forces is taking place in Macedonia in anticipation of deploying into Kosovo to implement a peace settlement and ensure the safety and security of refugees returning to their homes. As at 10 May, there are 5,700 British Army personnel and about 100 Royal Air Force personnel deployed in Macedonia in connection with those plans.

Mr. Fabricant: The Secretary of State has said nothing about the amount of time that troops might have to be in Kosovo. Perhaps he is quite right to do so--it could be an indefinite commitment. If we are to maintain troops in Kosovo, and also in Bosnia, we will need about 30 new regiments and battalions if we are to achieve a 24-month gap between operational tours. Is that not the case and, if we are to make a commitment in Kosovo, will the Government either commit themselves now to increasing the number of operational regiments or will he admit that the gap between operational tours will have to decrease?

Mr. Robertson: I hear the grinding sound of a great military mind at work. I do not know how the hon. Gentleman comes to that conclusion, which I have never heard from anybody else, about 30 new regiments being required for the British Army. The discussions that took place at Rambouillet about that suggested that we should be looking at a troop commitment by this country in Kosovo for three years after a peace agreement was arrived at. We have an early burden to carry, because we are the framework nation of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, and Lieutenant-General Jackson and his people are doing their job with enormous skill.

The view of my military advisers is that we can sustain what we are doing and that we, along with other elements of the international community, can bring peace back to Kosovo within a reasonable period, but, clearly, that will depend on the outcome of the conflict and the nature of any settlement that is reached.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): We can see different brigades and regiments going in during the build-up of British troops, but there has been no mention of the Yugoslav navy, which is a threat to our Royal Navy, or to the possibility of Marines being deployed. Can my right hon. Friend tell us what has happened to the Yugoslav navy in this conflict?

Mr. Robertson: There is a Yugoslav navy--my hon. Friend is absolutely right--but it has not ventured very far out of any of its harbours. If and when it becomes a threat to NATO forces in the area, action will be taken.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): In the light of the Secretary of State's plans for Kosovo, deployments to

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other parts of the Balkans and to Northern Ireland and other possible threats, I again urge him to reconsider the plans to run down the Territorial Army in the next few months and the horrifying decision to break up the centre of excellence--5 Airborne brigade--on 1 September. Before he gives me the same glib answer as the Minister for the Armed Forces gave my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), may I remind him that, when the Conservative Government found themselves faced with a crisis in 1982, Margaret Thatcher put her strategic defence review straight on to hold and cancelled the decision to sell HMS Invincible?

Mr. Robertson: The difference is that those previous defence reviews were reducing the size of our forces. Our strategic defence review increases the regular strength of the British Army by 3,300 troops and creates a sixth deployable brigade, which is precisely what the British Army was asking to be able to deploy in such circumstances.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, who has a fixation with the modernisation of the TA, that we set about modernising the TA so that it could be used more and could be more relevant, and so that it would, in circumstances such as those that we might face just now, be more involved. That is what the modernisation was all about; it is being successfully put into practice at present and we believe that it is also improving morale inside the TA. The changes suggested in the strategic defence review are designed specifically to allow this country's forces to be able to deal flexibly with situations such as those thrown up by Kosovo.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): Can the Secretary of State assure the House that he has not changed his mind about the fact that President Milosevic has no veto over any NATO action? Does he agree that it might be necessary for ground troops to go into Kosovo in an atmosphere that is not completely permissive?

Mr. Robertson: President Milosevic will have no veto over what we do in relation to getting the people evicted from Kosovo back safely to their homes. The NATO authorities are, on the instruction of the Secretary-General, re-visiting all of the assumptions that were made earlier this year. There is no question about a forced invasion of Kosovo, but it would be prudent and reasonable for us to look at all the options again in the light of the damage that has been done by Milosevic to Kosovo and the considerable damage done by NATO to the Serb military machine.


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