HC Deb 23 March 1982 vol 20 cc782-5
4. Mr. Meacher

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is the latest estimated total cost of Trident at current prices, taking account of all modifications adopted since the original announcement and of the effect of inflation since that date.

8. Mr. Ioan Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether a decision has yet been reached on the Trident programme; and if he will make a statement.

15. Mr. Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he has now completed his consideration of the future configuration of the United Kingdom's strategic nuclear deterrent.

17. Mr. Cryer

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he is yet in a position to say whether he intends to buy the C4 or D5 version of the Trident missile.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Peter Blaker)

I refer the hon. Members to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on 11 March.

Mr. Meacher

Is it not true that a cost escalation of 50 per cent. during the last two years is well on target for the enormous over-shoot that is so typical of defence projects? Is it not true that, in time, Trident will require new warheads and new motors on its missiles, as in the case of Polaris? Is it not the case that the costs of those items—probably £2 billion to £3 billion—are not yet included? Is not Trident, in any case, thoroughly bad value for money, because even a marginal impact on total defence costs will sooner or later lead to significant reductions in conventional defence capability, which is our real weakness?

Mr. Blaker

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. He will recall that Polaris came in on cost, and there are good reasons to hope that the same thing will happen with Trident. The Americans have considerable experience in the development of missiles. We are to get a fourth generation missile from the Americans. The previous missiles came in on time and on cost. We have considerable experience in the construction of submarines. Our SSN programme has shown very little cost escalation in real terms, so I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's fears have any basis.

Mr. Evans

As the world already possesses 50, 000 nuclear weapons with a destructive capacity of 1 million Hiroshima bombs—something that should be understood by everyone in the country—are the Government right in spending about £8 billion to £10 billion on Trident, money that will come from future Naval Estimates? Is that not why the written answer that is to be made later today talks about a cutback in naval conventional weapons?

Mr. Blaker

The announcement that is to be made later today has nothing to do with Trident.

Mr. Hoyle

Absolute rubbish.

Mr. Blaker

The defence review last year dealt with the problems at that time, when Trident was costing practically nothing. In the Naval Estimates we budget for defence purposes. We have a separate programme for Trident. It makes sense that the Navy should manage that programme, because the Navy will man Trident. It does not follow that if we did not have Trident the naval programme would be any different.

Mr. Latham

Is it not clear that Trident is by far the most effective strategic deterrent and that, so long as these abominable and dreadful weapons exist, the United Kingdom Government alone are ultimately responsible for the defence of these islands and cannot shuffle off the responsibility to anyone else?

Mr. Blaker

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Opposition's policy of abandoning our strategic nuclear deterrent would not enhance the prospect of peace. Rather, it would diminish that prospect.

Mr. Cryer

Is is not hypocritical for the Government to talk about peace and disarmament when, by buying the D5 Trident missile, they are fuelling a new nuclear arms race? That missile is at least 15 to 30 times more powerful than the Polaris missile that it replaces. Why is Trident so much more accurate and why is greater accuracy necessary unless there has been a change of policy from mutually assured destruction to targeting the missiles against military targets with a view to using them as first-strike weapons?

Mr. Blaker

The power of our Trident force will bear roughly the same relationship to the Soviet Union's strategic nuclear deterrent, when it is introduced, as Polaris bore towards the Soviet Union's strategic nuclear forces when it was introduced. It is certainly not NATO's policy to go for a first strike, as the hon. Gentleman implied. Still less is it the Government's policy to go for a first strike. It would not make sense and would be impossible. We have chosen Trident for reasons of commonality with the United States. Trident is simply the most cost-effective successor to Polaris that is available.

Mr. Banks

Is it not the case that the present estimates for the Trident programme include a figure for on-going research? Does my hon. Friend agree that that could be a factor in escalating the final cost outcome?

Mr. Blaker

With respect, that is not accurate. We have a fixed figure for the cost of research and development. That is one of the most important aspects of the agreement achieved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Dr. McDonald

Will the Minister confirm that the Trident programme involves spending £3 billion to £5 billion at dollar prices in the United States and thus squandering money that would be better spent on providing properly independent conventional forces in Britain? Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that, as the policy involves a minimal nuclear deterrent for the United Kingdom until the mid-1990s, it puts us in hock to American economic and foreign policies and makes us wholly dependent upon the United States for the next 15 years?

Mr. Blaker

If we buy Trident from the United States there is no reason why we should be in hock to that country's foreign policies. [Interruption.] We have not been in hock before and there is no reason why we should be. The world scene shows that the purchase of weapons from another country does not put the purchaser in hock to the seller. It would not put us in hock any more than it would put another country in hock. The other day my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that 45 per cent. of the cost of Trident will be spent in America. The figure for the C4 would have been higher than expected, largely due to the cost in exchange rates. However, the Americans are buying much more from us. Between £1 billion and £1.5 billion worth of contracts have been concluded recently by the Americans. The ratio between American and British purchases is much more favourable than it was a few years ago.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I give notice that I intend to raise the matter on the Adjournment.