HC Deb 14 January 1975 vol 884 cc166-7
5. Mr. Robin F. Cook

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the future of tactical nuclear weapons in service with British forces, in the light of the defence review.

Mr. Mason

No change is planned in the rôle of tactical nuclear weapons in service with British forces. The defence review proposals do not affect this question.

Mr. Cook

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the very large numbers of such weapons in the European theatre increases the danger that any conflict in Europe might quickly accelerate into a nuclear war? Since the preponderance of these weapons lies with the NATO countries, is not this a direction in which the West could usefully take an initiative towards mutual disarmament? Why are the British Government resisting the Dutch proposals that such weapons be included in the MBFR talks in Vienna?

Mr. Mason

First, no, I do not agree with my hon. Friend's initial comment about increasing the possibility of conflict. The tactical nuclear weapons in the hands of the West and the NATO nations are part of the triad for flexible response. We mainly depend upon conventional arms in Western Europe and hope that they will be sufficient to withstand a conventional assault, but the tactical nuclear weapons part of the flexible response will be there as a second stage before we would go to the nuclear holocaust. In that sense they are part of our deterrent. I hope that my hon. Friend will not believe that these weapons are only in the hands of the West. They are certainly in the hands of the East as well.

Mr. Blaker

When, in December, the right hon. Gentleman resisted the Dutch proposal to reduce the rôle of tactical nuclear weapons in Western Europe, he gave as his reason the fact that such a move might bring forward the time when the strategic nuclear deterrent might have to be used and that we should not make any such move in advance of the agreement in Vienna at the MBFR talks. Do not exactly these two arguments apply to his own proposal to reduce our reinforcement capability to NATO?

Mr. Mason

No, I do not think they do. We are well within our national rôle of activity in reappraising our forces provided we are still carrying out our task within the collective security of NATO, even though we may be lessening our effort on the flanks and hoping that those countries in NATO will be strengthening their effort as we withdraw from the flanks. Therefore, the hon. Member's initial comment does not square up with that point.