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4.55 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): This is a serious subject. I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) and the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on their contributions to the report. Their speeches were serious, as the subject deserves, as was that of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). In athletics he was a sprinter, but when it comes to a speech in the House of Commons he is definitely a marathon man--except that once it has been delivered he becomes a sprinter again, so soon is he out of the Chamber.

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Let me take up the point made by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West, who said that insecure states do foolish things. The first duty of any Government is to defend their citizens. In a highly technological age, weapons of mass destruction become more precise and potentially more destructive, thereby more of a threat if used unscrupulously. I see no moral reason--she brought ethics into her speech--why a responsible democracy such as the United States should not use its technical capabilities to enhance the security of its citizens.

Everybody understands that conflict resolution is a prior imperative of Governments. Everyone comprehends, for example, that year after year the United States of America has sought a diplomatic solution to the problems of the near east and the Arab-Israeli dispute. However, many disputes are so intractable and deep seated that the potential for regional and, indeed, wider conflict exists. Those include the near east, the Kashmir dispute, the dispute over Taiwan, and the rivalry between Iran and Iraq. A number of those potential flash points are areas where there is a build-up of weapons and weapons of mass destruction, so the need for diplomacy and peaceful solutions in great.

Nevertheless, there are limits to diplomacy, peaceful persuasion and rationality in international affairs. It is imperative that wise democracies prepare for the worst. Leaderships change, as I tried to show in my exchange with the hon. Lady, political intentions alter and unscrupulous, aggressive dictators can all too rapidly come to power. The examples are legion. The most recent in our history was only 19 years ago when the Falkland Islands were invaded. No one would have dreamt that Argentina could launch an invasion, but it did. We were surprised and many people lost their lives. Those unpleasant surprises in international affairs occur all too frequently. It is thus reasonable and wise policy for the United States to develop systems of defence against the most fearsome of all weapons of mass destruction--ballistic missiles.

When we examine what happened in the Gulf war, we realise that it was fortunate that the USA could deploy the Patriot anti-aircraft missile system, notionally in anti- missile mode, against the Scuds launched by Iraq. Had the USA not been able to do that, I suspect that Israeli public opinion would not have tolerated the Scud raids launched against Tel Aviv and other Israeli targets. The provocation of the Israeli people would have been such that they would have demanded the armed intervention of their Government, and then a serious regional crisis--following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait--would have become a regional conflict of dangerous proportions.

That example alone demonstrates the importance of the reassuring effect of an appropriate defensive system. In retrospect, we all know that the Patriots were not effective and that, by and large, the Scuds were not intercepted. Nevertheless, the importance of a modicum of defence was understood.

The USA is embarked on the development of missile defence systems, and nothing we can say in this place will deflect it from that objective, especially as it was put to the American people as the programme of the newly elected Republican President, Mr. Bush. The US Secretary of Defence--Mr. Rumsfeld--Colin Powell and the President himself are determined to achieve a

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successful development programme, which within a few years will enable the USA to determine whether missile defence is feasible and cost-effective.

In essence, there are three types of system: point defence systems--theatre missile defence; wider systems--national missile defence; and, ultimately, space based systems of global significance, which could bring the international community a measure of security against surprise missile attack that we have never enjoyed. Even setting up the rudimentary architecture is an advance. For example, if the allies had to launch a taskforce to intervene to bring peace to an especially troublesome part of the world, such as the middle or the near east, it would be reassuring to know that theatre missile defence was available against ballistic missile attack--whether from nuclear, chemical or biological, or even conventional weapons. It would be wise policy to make available such a capability.

National missile defence is inherently a matter for the United States, but of course some of the facilities, such as the early warning installation at Fylingdales in Yorkshire, are overseas. It would be foolish of the United Kingdom to fail to assist the US in upgrading that facility, inasmuch as we would gain from it. At the very least, as US allies, we should have improved early warning of missile launches that could risk our people. If only in national self-interest, we would be foolish not to assist the Americans in NMD.

Of course, there are international ramifications, but missile defence threatens no one. I am delighted that major powers such as the United States--at present, solely the United States--are working towards an enhancement of defensive capabilities that will reduce the risk to their population, and are no longer keen on increasing their offensive armoury of weapons of mass destruction. That is a great advance.

As other hon. Members have said, the arms control process has already diminished the inventories of offensive weapons systems available to the principal powers. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West said that four out of five main nuclear states had reduced their nuclear armouries: quite so, but one such state remains, and she was not critical of it, any more than was the right hon. Member for Swansea, East. It is China.

The People's Republic of China has been inexorably increasing its defence spending in recent years, allied to which its economic potential is constantly growing. It receives aid, assistance and technical transfers from the western powers and considerable military assistance from the Russian Federation. Analysts would do well constantly to study the People's Republic of China, which is seeking to enhance its sea power in the Pacific and is prepared to sabre-rattle against Taiwan and to embark on military exercises in the neighbouring regions. Its space programme is closely allied to its missile capability and its potential capacity to launch weapons of mass destruction. In those circumstances, the United States is wise to pursue the research programme on which it is embarked. I hope that the research programme will lead to some successful conclusions.

Dr. Starkey: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that national missile defence is intended to protect the United States against China?

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Mr. Wilkinson: Indeed so; otherwise, why would the early-warning installations in Alaska be the first to be upgraded? It is conceivable that not just Russia, but China or North Korea, or any of those Pacific states, could be a threat to the western United States of America. That is absolutely true, and no one can argue against that fact.

The policy makers in the United States place more emphasis on the risk of rogue states, because we all assume that they are so inherently unstable that an aggressive dictator is more likely to come to power in them. They have had a succession of unpleasant totalitarian regimes of the kind mentioned by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West. Nevertheless, it would be extremely imprudent not to take note of the steady increase in China's military power and its potential.

There is also the potential for nuclear blackmail. A nuclear power of whatever size does not have to launch a nuclear weapon to be in a better position to secure its interests. Since we acquired our own nuclear weapons in 1945, we have secured our interests, to some extent, by having a nuclear deterrent. We have kept that nuclear deterrent. As other hon. Members have said, that is now to a much greater degree a non-partisan doctrine across the Floor of the House, but I recall the days when it was a matter of intense political debate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) knows better than I do, there was an intense struggle to prevent the modernisation of NATO's nuclear arsenal in the early 1980s, but we were resolute. The former head of the East German secret service, Marcus Wolf, has just produced a fascinating book that merits careful reading by those who study such matters. We warned that the peace movement was being manipulated by the KGB, the East German secret service, and so on. We also warned about the degree of infiltration in West Germany.

We recognised that the concerted efforts that were being made by the Warsaw pact to create division in the western alliance represented a serious threat, and we stood up to it. Furthermore, President Reagan's programme to try to establish a ballistic missile defence system and the work that General Abramson and others did in the 1980s was a contributory factor in the then Soviet Union's realisation that it could never beat the free world, led by the United States, in an international arms race.

The Soviet Union realised that it was much wiser to move to a democratic system, to allow a process of self-determination in the constituent parts of the former Soviet Union and to reach an accommodation with neighbours. Mercifully, that has been a great step forward.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard within the Russian Federation. The Chechen operation was a bloody undertaking. A Polish Member of Parliament, whom I know well because he sits with me on the Council of Europe's Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography, went to Grozny. When he came back, he told me, "I have not seen such devastation in a western city since the devastation that we saw in Warsaw at the end of world war two." If the Russians are prepared to use military force against people whom they purport to be their own, who knows how they would react if their leadership changed? In those circumstances, is it not important to have not only an arms control regime in place, but a modicum of defence in case deterrence breaks down?

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I hope that the United States' western European allies will try to understand why the United States has to pursue its research efforts into ballistic missile defence. I hope, too, that the western Europeans do not divide themselves into EU sheep and non-EU goats. Our common security interests transcend the artificial division that exists on our continent between EU and non-EU members. Such a division is pernicious in the process of the European security and defence identity.

Many central European countries that are crucial to the security of the continent have already joined NATO. They include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Others aspire to join NATO and they are participating in Partnership for Peace. Their interest is in the preservation of their hard-won democracy and the rule of law, which they now value so much. They are entitled to be full members of the decision-making process over European security. They and the countries that have always been members of NATO--such as the Turks and the Norwegians, who had a frontier with the former Soviet Union, and the Icelanders--are all in it together.

That is why I hope that the value of the Assembly of the Western European Union, on which I serve, will be fully appreciated. The treaty of Nice means that everything apart from article 5 of the Brussels treaty and the role of the armaments group will be transferred from the WEU, but that is no reason to give up the invaluable dialogue between interested and informed parliamentarians that exists in the WEU Assembly. We have produced countless reports. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who chairs the aerospace committee, produced a report on transatlantic co-operation on anti-missile defence and Mr. Schloten, a socialist who chairs the defence committee, has published one on nuclear armaments, which discusses the issues involved and the prospects for the common European defence and security policy.

Those national parliamentarians have a dialogue with national Defence Ministers and may participate in the national defence committees. They vote funds for defence and influence Governments, and I hope that they will influence their Governments to ensure that the Europeans do not diverge from the United States on the question of missile defence. If the developments prove successful, I hope that the Americans will seek to achieve an agreement with the Russians to allow the deployment of proven systems and, as Mr. Putin has offered, will participate jointly in missile defence. Let us work on that offer as a token of his good intentions.

If that could be achieved, the anti-nuclear missile umbrella that has been offered by the United States could protect not just the United States but our continent and could offer a degree of security to Russia as well. That is what is on offer. However, if we turn our back on the technology, we will be turning our back also on an enhancement of our defensive capabilities.

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