Previous SectionIndexHome Page

17 Oct 2002 : Column 501—continued

Bob Russell (Colchester): Will the Secretary of State advise the House as to the current strength of the British Army, and whether its being under strength is affecting its capacity to undertake all its duties?

Mr. Hoon: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are still slightly short of the target set, but in recent months a record number of recruits have entered basic training. Although we still have some ambitious targets to satisfy, I am confident that we are taking the right decisions to enable us to move toward the manning totals for the Army and the other two services.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): The right hon. Gentleman will know that, under the headline goals established to make the European security and defence identity effective, significant force improvements are required by all the participating countries. The United Kingdom is not doing too badly, and the French are doing exceptionally well through their five-year defence review. Will he therefore recommend to other European allies that they follow the French example, and if necessary bust the criteria of the stability pact to achieve the headline goals?

Mr. Hoon: I think that I heard the hon. Gentleman say something nice about France—there is hope for us all. I shall deal briefly with European defence matters in a moment, but he is right: it is vital not only that countries spend more on defence, but that they spend the money better. I do not know whether his question betrays support for the headline goal process, but I shall not push him too far, given his previous admission. We

17 Oct 2002 : Column 502

have strongly supported that process in part because it is concentrated on capabilities—on a process of persuading our partners in the European Union to spend more on defence, and to spend it better.

It is important that our service men and women are equipped with reliable and effective weapons that are up to the demands that we place on them. Obviously, they should have full confidence in the equipment that they use. The House will be aware of the decision to retain in service the SA80 A2 weapons system. Modifications to the system have improved its reliability and made it among the best in the world. Those findings have been confirmed in a series of stringent trials. I want to reassure the House that Defence Ministers and senior members of the military have looked at the issue closely. I am fully satisfied that we have taken the right decision, that the SA80 A2 is up to the job, and that, as our service personnel see its capabilities properly demonstrated, their confidence in this vital equipment will be retained.

Of course, it is not just at our own national level that we need to organise our defence capabilities to meet the threats and demands of the new strategic environment. NATO is on track with its transformation programme, which will be the key element of next month's Prague summit. The alliance's command structure will be reshaped, and new capabilities and the proposed NATO response force will provide the cutting edge. As I said, we continue to work with our European partners to strengthen European capabilities under the European Union's headline goal, which we aim to have delivered by the end of next year.

Mr. Dalyell: As a former, albeit extremely junior, member of 7th Armoured Brigade, may I ask about the Challenger tank? Those of us who were tank crew in previous eras are understandably concerned at what we read about the problems with the Challenger 2, and the filters that might be required in the desert.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend refers to one of the lessons learned from a major desert exercise in Oman. It clearly demonstrated that, whatever the prevailing sand conditions, the Challenger 2 needs appropriate modification if it is to be deployed in such circumstances. I can assure the House that, in the event of so deploying a Challenger 2, it will be appropriately modified.

Jim Knight (South Dorset): Is my right hon. Friend aware of evidence taken by the Defence Committee yesterday from Simon Webb, director of policy at the Ministry of Defence? We got the impression that Challenger 2s were sent out not to learn lessons about filters and how deployable they are in deserts, but to test whether they could get out there.

Mr. Hoon: There is no doubt that they got out there, but I am not sure that it is wholly sensible to draw the distinction that my hon. Friend draws. I doubt whether the House would regard it as particularly satisfactory for me to set out only those lessons learned that we intended to learn; the truth is that we have to learn a range of lessons from that experience, and I can assure the House that we have done so.

Our work over the past 12 months has been focused on one simple proposition: the need to defend the people of the United Kingdom, their interests and their allies.

17 Oct 2002 : Column 503

We face many threats in an increasingly unpredictable world, but above all else we have to deal with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The recent admission by North Korea that it has a nuclear weapons programme illustrates how critical that is. The terrible nature and power of these weapons in unscrupulous hands is such that there can be few more important challenges than protecting ourselves and our friends and allies from their potentially devastating impact.

Let us make no mistake: there are people who are more than willing to use such weapons against us. I have spoken of Iraq, but the possibility of any one of a range of terrorist groups acquiring a chemical, biological, radiological or even nuclear weapon is far from fantasy. They are trying to acquire such weapons, and we cannot be certain that they will not succeed. In terms of the death and destruction that they can cause and the strategic effect that they can achieve, many of these weapons are neither costly nor even complex to manufacture.

Linked to the threat from weapons of mass destruction is that of ballistic missile proliferation. Such missiles pose a threat in themselves, but it is their capability to deliver WMD warheads that make them still more of a concern. Right hon. and hon. Members may therefore find it helpful if I say a few words about the work in the United States on the development of ballistic missile defence systems, and this Government's position on such systems.

The United States' withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty took effect on 13 June. Contrary to some commentators' expectations, that did not prove to be the prelude to a new strategic arms race. In fact, it coincided with the negotiation and conclusion of the Moscow treaty, under which the United States and Russia agreed to steep reductions in the numbers of their deployed strategic nuclear warheads. The US missile defence programme is gathering momentum, as Monday evening's successful test illustrates. In particular, the United States has plans for a test-bed in the Pacific, to be used to develop and evaluate options for a basic missile defence system capable of addressing the full range of missile threats. Developing effective ballistic missile defence is a hugely challenging task. Any system will inevitably have to develop on an evolutionary basis, as understanding increases of the technological and other risks and opportunities involved.

During the summer, US officials visited London and other European capitals, as well as NATO headquarters in Brussels, to set out possible approaches to missile defence and to repeat US willingness to offer protection to friends and allies. It is right that we recognise the potential contribution of missile defence to a comprehensive strategy to deal with the threat from ballistic missiles—a strategy that also includes non-proliferation and counter-proliferation measures, diplomacy and deterrence.

The close access to the US research programme that we already enjoy will be essential background to inform any decisions that we may wish to take on missile defence for Europe or the United Kingdom. Against that background, I want to make two points that I and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary have made many times before. The United States Administration

17 Oct 2002 : Column 504

have made no specific decisions about the precise future architecture of a United States missile defence system. No formal request has been made to us for the use of RAF Fylingdales as part of the US programme.

If a US request for the use of Fylingdales—or any other UK facility for missile defence purposes—is received, we will consider it very seriously. The Government would agree to such a request only if we were satisfied that the overall security of the UK and the alliance would be enhanced. Since this subject is highly complex and one of considerable interest to the House, I have asked for some detailed analytical work to be completed on the implications of missile defence and its relationship with other elements of a comprehensive strategy against the ballistic missile threat. We welcome parliamentary and public discussion of the issues involved. I therefore intend to make available in the coming months further analytical and discussion material as our work progresses, and we will be ready to discuss these issues in the House at the appropriate time.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Has the Secretary of State not just made a coded statement that Britain will take part in missile defence and will support the United States in this costly disaster—the proposed star wars in the sky—which will cost this country dear, and line us up ever more closely with the United States and all its interests, against the rest of the world?

Next Section

IndexHome Page