HC Deb 20 January 1981 vol 997 cc141-2
12. Mr. Allan Roberts

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he makes of the likelihood of any conventional war in Europe extending into one in which nuclear weapons are used.

Mr. Nott

Our policy of deterrence is to prevent a war altogether, but if one were to occur I could not exclude the possibility that it would escalate into an exchange of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Roberts

If that is the case, and the Minister admits that a conventional war in Europe is likely to deteriorate into a nuclear war, why do we need such a build-up of conventional troops in Europe? If his policy—[Interruption.] It is strange that some of the main critics of my visit to Afghanistan went on all-expenses-paid trip to South Africa as guests of the Government, including the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). If the Minister—[Interruption.]—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is a fundamental rule in this House that everyone has a right to be heard.

Mr. Roberts

If the Minister believes that nuclear weapons will prevent a war, why do we need expenditure on such massive conventional forces?

Mr. Nott

To use the hon. Gentleman's phrase, the build-up of our conventional forces in Germany is considerably less than the recent build-up of the Russian forces in Afghanistan. As the hon. Gentleman knows very well indeed, our conventional forces are at present heavily outnumbered by those of the Warsaw Pact.

Mr. Nelson

Is not a better answer to the hon. Gentleman's question that if we seek to prevent war from escalating into nuclear conflict, a raising of the nuclear threshold is required, and for that reason it is absolutely essential that we adhere to the re-equipment programme which was set out in last year's White Paper and which should not be substantially affected by any statement today?

Mr. Nott

I have held my new job for only a week, and my hon. Friend seems to be after it already. I entirely agree with him. What he said about the nuclear threshold is absolutely correct, and I support every word that he said.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Is not the prospect of a war remaining conventional from the beginning to the bitter end the most realistic and dangerous prospect that this country has to face? Does not the new Secretary of State agree that it is upon that hypothesis that the provision and preparation of our forces ought overwhelmingly to be based?

Mr. Nott

I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must be prepared for any kind of war which might break out on the European front. The emphasis which he places upon our conventional forces—I well know his views—is one that I strongly support. But we must maintain a range of weapons from conventional through to theatre nuclear and strategic nuclear if we are to match the threat from the Warsaw Pact.

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