HC Deb 20 January 1981 vol 997 cc135-6
4. Mr. Gwilym Roberts

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will redistribute defence expenditure with the aim of reducing the proportion spent on nuclear weapons.

6. Mr. Beith

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether any defence projects are under review as a result of the excalating costs of the Trident programme; and if he will list them.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Nott)

No, Sir. Our nuclear forces, including Trident, absorb, or will absorb, only a small proportion of our defence budget.

Mr. Roberts

May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman upon his appointment and express the hope that his movement will lead to better things in defence? Does he agree that, whatever argument there might be for conventional weapons, there can be no case for British nuclear weapons? Does he accept that they make only a minimal contribution to Western defence and that in any case we have no control over the majority of them?

Mr. Nott

I thank the hon. Gentleman, although his remarks could be interpreted in two ways. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's view. It seems to me that a strategic nuclear deterrent is essential to the defences of the NATO Alliance and our liberty.

Mr. Trippier

As the planned, long-range theatre nuclear forces of cruise missiles and Pershings are not primarily designed to cater for the bolt from the blue nuclear attack, does my right hon. Friend agree that the exceptional readiness of the strategic nuclear forces currently invested in Polaris and later in Trident provide the most effective and least costly form of insurance against massive surprise attack?

Mr. Nott

I agree with my hon. Friend. Trident is the most cost-effective way of providing the minimum capability for a viable strategic nuclear deterrent. I believe that it should be seen as an integral part of our defence system and not as an addition to it.

Mr. Beith

Does the Secretary of State accept that his welcome to office will depend on whether he keeps election pledges to safeguard our defences or uses his Treasury experience to whittle them away? Does he realise how many commentators now accept that we cannot afford Trident without impairing the strength of the British Army of the Rhine or our naval commitments to NATO?

Mr. Nott

I intend to keep my party's commitments on defence. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, although I was interested in my time in the Treasury, that was many years ago. Our strategic nuclear force—Trident, the successor to Polaris—will absorb only a relatively small part of our total defence budget, amounting to approximately 3 per cent. on average over the next fifteen years. That is not a large sum for the deterrent importance of a strategic nuclear weapon of that kind.

Mr. Adley

I welcome and congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new appointment. Does he agree with hon. Members on the Government side of the House and half the Opposition that Mr. Attlee was right when he initiated our nuclear deterrent? Does he accept that the threat has certainly not diminished and that the only thing that has changed since then is that the Soviet Union has built up a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons? Will he confirm that it remains unequivocally the Government's policy to retain an effective nuclear deterrent for Britain?

Mr. Nott

I agree with my hon. Friend and confirm everything that he says.

Mr. John

Does the Secretary of State agree that in the peak years the Trident project will absorb 15 per cent. of our equipment budget? Does he really assure the House that none of the other equipment projects planned for the Armed Forces will have to give way if we go ahead with the Trident project?

Mr. Nott

I do not accept the 15 per cent. figure. In the peak years towards the end of the 1980s Trident will absorb more than the average of 3 per cent. but nowhere near 15 per cent. I regard it as absolutely essential to a credible deterrent policy that we have a successor to Polaris. Trident is the most cost-effective way of doing that.

Mr. Frank Allaun

In addition to the £5 billion Government estimate for Trident—and such estimates have almost always proved to be under-estimates—will there not be a bill for several billions of pounds to cover the crews and maintenance of those weapons and their missiles in the first 10 years?

Mr. Nott

We estimate that the running of the Trident fleet will probably cost about the same percentage of expenditure as the existing Polaris fleet—that is, about 1½ per cent. of our total defence budget.

Viscount Cranborne

Has my right hon. Friend studied the development of laser weapon technology in the United States and the Soviet Union? If he has, is he satisfied that these rapid developments will not make intercontinental ballistic missiles obsolete?

Mr. Nott

I have been four days in office at the Ministry of Defence. I have not yet had the opportunity to study that matter.

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