HC Deb 14 January 1986 vol 89 cc906-9
2. Mr. D. E. Thomas

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what military spin-off he expects from the strategic defence initiative research; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger)

I have nothing to add to the statement that my predecessor made to the House on 9 December.

Mr. Thomas

Does the new Secretary of State for Defence, whom I am sure we all welcome to the Dispatch Box, agree with the view of the United States Secretary of Defence that deterrence is a mutual suicide pact? Does he agree with him also that the world needs to be released from the shadow of nuclear destruction? If so, does he believe that the pursuit of research into verifiable measures of nuclear disarmament is preferable, cheaper, and likely to be more effective than the pursuit of the technological fixed dream of SDI?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. The point is that the research will continue in any case, and the fact that we in Britain have an opportunity to take part in it can only be to our advantage. It remains the main part of our policy to pursue the reduction of armaments in every way we can.

Sir Antony Buck

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box as Secretary of State for Defence and wish him a long and happy tenure of office in that job. Does he agree that the spin-offs from projects such as this are incalculable, and that the spin-offs are always much more considerable than the accepted wisdom?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his welcome, which I greatly appreciate. It is important for us all to realise that the spin-off effects are not merely in the area to which they are addressed—that is to say, research into systems in space—but that they have important connotations for conventional defence and civilian use.

Mr. James Lamond

When the research eventually comes to an end, will we be given the complete results? Will we be treated by President Reagan with the same generosity as he has promised to treat the Soviet Union?

Mr. Younger

It will be a long time before the reasearch upon which we are embarking in conjunction with the United States comes to any sort of an end. At that time, it will be for all the Governments concerned to consider what should be published.

Mr. Dickens

Is there any chance, however remote, that SDI research will lead to helicopters being obsolescent?

Mr. Younger

I do not think that the research is addressing itself to that question.

Mr. Denzil Davies

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his office of Secretary of State for Defence. He will know, as the House knows, that he is the fourth incumbent of that office in a period of about five and a half years, and, with such an attrition rate, I hope that he has cleared all his answers with the Cabinet Office.

Dare I ask him whether the view that he is expressing on SDI is a collective view, or an ad hoc view, by the Government? Does he agree with what President Reagan said in his famous star wars speech, that nuclear weapons were immoral, or do the Government agree with the critics, including the Foreign Secretary, who see star wars as an escalation of the arms race, destabilising, and having turned NATO's nuclear strategy completely upside down?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, which I greatly appreciate. He said that I am the fourth incumbent of this office, but in my last office I was the only incumbent for six and a half years, so perhaps there is a balance there.

All the answers that I give will be Government policy generally. I agree with what President Reagan has always made clear, that this is a matter of pursuing research that will be pursued anyway, and it is most important that we should have a part in it.

3. Mr. Meadowcroft

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what evaluation his Department has made of the feasibility of the strategic defence initiative as a defence system.

11. Mr. Beith

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment Her Majesty's Government make of the attainability of the objectives originally set by President Reagan for the strategic defence initiative.

Mr. Younger

The United States SDI is a long-term research programme intended to investigate the technical feasibility of defences against ballistic missiles. It would be premature at this stage to form judgments about the outcome of the research.

Mr. Meadowcroft

I associate the Liberal Bench with the welcome to the Secretary of State and express the wish that he is as helpful inside the Cabinet as his predecessor now is outside the Cabinet. Given that the bedrock of the deterrence theory, according to its adherents, is the ability of both sides to inflict devastating damage, and that the aim of SDI is to make one side invulnerable to that devastating damage, does not SDI undermine the theory of deterrence?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for their good wishes, which I greatly appreciate.

As for his other point, as my right hon. Friend has made very clear on numerous occasions, one of the principal objectives of the SDI research programme is to enhance, not to reduce, deterrence. I hope very much that it will do that.

Mr. Beith

Did not the President of the United States make it quite clear that his basis for accepting SDI was that it could render nuclear weapons obsolete by creating an impenetrable shield against all offensive weapons? If that cannot be attained—and nobody in the United States now seems to believe that it can—does not SDI become an expensive, unnecessary and provocative addition to our deterrent?

Mr. Younger

That is the whole purpose of embarking upon research in the first place. Until that research has been brought to fruition, which will take a long time, we shall not know whether it is capable of achieving its main objective, which is to devise a system that will make nuclear weapons obsolescent. I should have thought that all of us would approve of that objective.

Mr. Wilkinson

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend upon his appointment. Does he agree that the more awesome the weapons of mass destruction that are ranged against us by the Soviet Union, the more important it is for scientists on this side of the Atlantic, as in the United States, to carry out research into potential defences against them?

Mr. Younger

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that it is important from those points of view. When one adds to that the fact that this research will take place somewhere anyway, surely all of us who have any interest in this country's high technology industry should be glad that we are to have some part in it.

Mr. Maclean

Is it not a fact that for many years the Soviet Union has had a massive SDI programme of its own, killer satellites being merely one example? Is it not misleading for Opposition politicians and others to give the impression that the West and NATO are breaking new ground by taking the SDI initiative? Surely we should be doing this in order to keep up with what the Soviet Union has been doing for years.

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Soviet Union has indeed been carrying out investigations in this area for a very long time. I am quite baffled by the theory that seems to be put forward by the Opposition that, despite that, we ought to have nothing to do with it. That seems to me to be a suicidal course.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

Is the Secretary of State aware of United States studies which suggest that laser technology, which can be used as an anti-ballistic missile system, can also be used as an offensive system to create fires within Soviet cities? Does the Secretary of State accept that if that is the case, those weapons, far from enhancing deep deterrence, are very dangerous, because they will escalate the production of offensive armaments?

Mr. Younger

I have seen newspaper reports to that effect, but at this stage there is no hard evidence that research has established any such fact. If it did, it would be a new matter that would have to be considered afresh.

Mr. Chris Smith

Has the new Secretary of State for Defence yet had a chance to read the letter—not marked confidential—that was sent to the Prime Minister in October 1985 by 60 leading advanced information technology scientists at Imperial college, saying that any conceivable star wars technology was not feasible? If the Secretary of State has read that letter, what is his response to it?

Mr. Younger

I have heard about that letter, but I have not yet had a chance to read it. I shall certainly study it with care.