HC Deb 22 March 1988 vol 130 cc189-91
10. Ms. Primarolo

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to replace any of the Royal Air Force's hydrogen bombs with air-launched cruise missiles.

11. Ms. Ruddock

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to replace any of the Royal Air Force's hydrogen bombs with air-launched cruise missiles.

Mr. Ian Stewart

No decisions on a replacement for the United Kingdom's free-fall nuclear bombs have yet been taken.

Ms. Primarolo

Are air-launched cruise missiles being considered by the Government as an option to replace the hydrogen bomb carried by the Tornado aircraft in the Royal Air Force? Is it not true that that decision is a consequence of the Montebello agreement and the decisions on modernisation? Is it therefore true that the article in The Guardian on 29 February is correct in saying that a decision has been taken to develop a new cruise missile — a new nuclear weapon — without Parliament being told?

Mr. Stewart

The hon. Lady is wrong. No decisions have been made, but there are many options. The requirements of the United Kingdom and of other countries need to be considered, and it will be some time before a decision is made.

Ms. Ruddock

Further to that answer, will the Minister give the House an assurance that no decision will be made to develop a nuclear warhead at AWE Aldermaston for an air-launched cruise missile without a debate in the House? Is it not true that such a weapon, if carried on a plane, would take it within the range of the very INF missiles that have just been negotiated away? As the hon. Gentleman is so enthusiastic about INF, surely the better thing to do would be to negotiate a ban on all air-launched missiles, instead of unilateral escalation.

Mr. Stewart

I am glad that the hon. Lady shares my enthusiasm for the INF agreement, especially as she and her hon. Friends played such a part in trying to present its ever coming about.

As I have said, any decisions about replacement for the United Kingdom's nuclear bombs are some way off. I have no doubt that the House will be fully informed and will have many occasions on which to debate and consider the matter when the decision is made.

Mr. Cormack

If my hon. Friend and his colleagues want to update weapons without telling anyone, will they consult the Chevaline brigade?

Mr. Stewart

The example of which my hon. Friend has reminded the House is just another aspect of the way in which the Labour party, even when in power, is entirely dishonourable about these matters.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Tornado aircraft is a very expensive and sophisticated platform for the carrying of weapons systems, and that the pilot is trained at great expense? Is it not therefore essential that both pilot and aircraft are given the equipment that will meet the challenges and demands of the sophisticated Soviet equipment that they will have to face, and that a stand-off capability will have to be produced in the very near future?

Mr. Stewart

I am sure my hon. Friend is right in saying that a stand-off capability of that kind is likely to be very important for the Royal Air Force and our allies for a number of years ahead. However, I join him in saying that the pilots of the Tornados are the most professional in the world. The RAF pilots of Tornados and other aircraft have no match, not only in NATO, but anywhere else. We rely on them for the strength and the degree of security that we possess, and we are grateful for that.

Mr. O'Neill

Is the Minister aware that his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley), repeatedly attacked any concept of the SLOvIs and air-launched cruise missiles, on the basis of the difficulty of verifying such weapons and the problems that would arise for the deal beyond the next deal? Is that still the Government's view, and are they still prepared to reject as an option any possibility of having air-launched cruise missiles as part of Britain's nuclear arsenal?

Mr. Stewart

We think that we will need what is technically known as a TASM—a tactical air-to-surface missile—as a replacement for the free-fall bomb. I have no recollection of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley) ever having spoken against that, because it has been the Government's policy for some considerable time to support that proposal, alongside our NATO colleagues.

Mr. Wilkinson

May I emphasise as strongly as I can to my hon. Friend the importance of giving the Royal Air Force a stand-off capability as early as possible? The air defences of the Warsaw pact are improving greatly, and without such a capability British air crews would be lost unnecessarily were deterrence to fail.

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Developments of this kind must take account of the threat of the Warsaw pact capability. My hon. Friend is right to state that the uprating of the Warsaw pact air defence capability means that we must bring our own forces up to date and not adopt the policy of non-modernisation, which appeals so much to the Labour party.