HC Deb 28 October 1980 vol 991 cc185-8
7. Mr. Ioan Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what are the latest estimates of expenditure on nuclear weapons.

Mr. Pym

The main items of expenditure on nuclear forces are the running costs of the Polaris force at £165 million this year; the Chevaline improvement programme, which is now nearing completion, at a total cost of about £1,000 million: and the Trident programme at an estimated total capital cost, spread over 15 years, of the order of £4½ billion to £5 billion.

Mr. Evans

At a time when the Government are introducing massive public expenditure cuts over the whole range of social services, why are they unilaterally increasing expenditure on nuclear weapons? Would not their efforts be better used to maintain the peace of the world through a non-proliferation treaty? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the war in Iran and Iraq would be better if both sides had nuclear weapons?

Mr. Pym

I assure the hon. Gentleman that this increase in expenditure is not unilateral. The Alliance as a whole believes that it is necessary to spend more. Of course, as I have said, I share the hon. Gentleman's desire to spend more on other things that will be socially advantageous.

The object of defence is not only to protect the realm, but to maintain our security at the lowest possible cost. We do not want to spend a pound more than we have to. We are not attempting to match in expenditure or weapons systems the threat that faces us, but we do intend to have, and we shall continue to achieve, a degree of security and safety that will deter an aggressor and therefore preserve the peace. If only the arms control negotiations would yield results we would he able to do it even more cheaply, but, whatever the level, if it is the minimum level for our defences, that is what it must be. We hope that before long we can arrive at a situation in which the kind of spending which the hon. Gentleman, myself and everyone wants can happen.

Mr. Wall

As all the major Warsaw Pact defence manoeuvres end in practising for nuclear war, would not that question be better directed to the Kremlin? Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm our loyalty to NATO and to the NATO Treaty, both in conventional and nuclear weapons?

Mr. Pym

The biggest exercise of all did not end in the nuclear issue, because it was designed for a different purpose. I do not think that any hon. Member is in the slightest doubt about our adhesion to NATO, including the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers) who is at present speaking for the Opposition on defence. I endorse and confirm that we strongly support the NATO aim of annual increases of about 3 per cent., because we believe that that is necessary. During the Government's first year in office we achieved that increase, and we hope that we shall achieve it this year. However, we cannot at this stage say what the outcome for the current year will be.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

Does the Secretary of State agree that the only credibility that he can claim for his argument against nuclear disarmament is that NATO nuclear arms are always technically inferior to those possessed by the Russians? If that is the case he can claim that he would want to negotiate from a position of strength, but if he is saying that British arms are superior to those of the Soviet Union, how can he maintain his argument against disarmament?

Mr. Pym

There is a later question on arms control, but I am not sure that I followed the drift of the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I have not made any comment this afternoon about the relative technical excellence of our weapons as against those of the Russians.

Sir Frederick Burden

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Afghanistan had had a nuclear deterrent the Russians would have thought more before attempting to invade that country?

Mr. Pym

Whether or not they would have invaded, the Russians made a disastrous error of judgment in invading Afghanistan because they alerted the rest of the world to their true intentions, or at least to the fact that they are prepared to use their growing military strength for military purposes in a neutral and independent sovereign State. I do not know whether nuclear weapons would have deterred them, but I know that the Soviet Union trains its military personnel in the use of nuclear weapons as offensive weapons, and that gives cause for a great deal of concern in the House.

Mr. Rodgers

We should be clear about the Government's intentions with regard to the 3 per cent. increase in defence spending. The Secretary of State said that he could not say whether the Government would achieve a 3 per cent. increase this year. I understand that to mean that the Department is never clear whether it will underspend or overspend. Will the right hon. Gentlemen say plainly that he is still committed, as he was six months ago, to a 3 per cent. further increase in the coming financial year?

Mr. Pym

The Government remain committed to a 3 per cent. increase—this year, next year and the year after. As the right hon. Gentleman said, we cannot be certain, because we do not know whether we will overspend or underspend, but that is the aim, and we are committed to it. [Interruption.] Labour Members shake their heads, but we achieved 3 per cent. real growth last year over the previous year. If the Labour Party was in power that figure would be lower, because it gave a commitment at the time of the general election that it would reduce expenditure on defence, and at the Labour Party conference it was made clear that that figure would be reduced still further. That should cause great anxiety throughout the country, because if that happened we would not be secure and, we would not have a defensive capability to preserve the peace. It is a serious issue.