HC Deb 24 May 1988 vol 134 cc182-4
5. Mr. Pike

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what decisions concerning modernisation of nuclear weapons were made at the last North Atlantic Treaty Organisation nuclear planning group meeting.

8. Mr. Bradley

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what decisions concerning nuclear-capable aircraft were made at the last North Atlantic Treaty Organisation nuclear planning group meeting.

Mr. Younger

No specific procurement or deployment decisions were taken, though further guidance was provided on the way ahead and of the need to keep our forces up to date. A copy of the communiqué issued after the Brussels NPG meeting has been placed in the Library of the House.

Mr. Pike

Why did the right hon. Gentleman choose to announce the replacement for Britain's RAF freefall nuclear bomb on "Panorama" and not to the House? Will he state categorically whether the cost of that replacement—and all other replacements—is fully included in the Defence Estimates to be announced next week? Will he also state whether he believes that this will place in jeopardy the agreements being reached under the INF treaty?

Mr. Younger

It will certainly have no effect on the agreements reached under the INF treaty, as this refers only to ground-based missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 km. We have made a general allowance in our forward costings for possible weapons systems to replace the freefall bombs. The hon. Gentleman is not as well informed as he usually is if he imagines that I announced anything new on "Panorama". No decision has been made on what would replace the freefall bombs, but the need to decide on a replacement has been referred to many times, most notably on 4 March 1988—the hon. Gentleman will find the reference in column 1288 of Hansard—when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that we have to find a replacement for these freefall bombs in due course.

Mr. Bradley

Is not the combination of more nuclear capable aircraft, more air-to-surface missiles and more United States nuclear-capable strike aircraft merely a replacement for the INF weapons cuts? Does NATO not already have superiority in such aircraft? Rather than increasing the number of such weapons, would it not be better to trade them against further Soviet arms cuts?

Mr. Younger

There has been a great reduction in the number of warheads in our provision for nuclear deterrence. More than 2,000 have been removed unilaterally over the last year or two. That is progress. With regard to the range of weapons systems, we shall in no sense be breaking the spirit or the letter of the INF treaty. We welcome that as a great achievement which our steadfastness and our unity have produced. Nevertheless, we have to maintain a range of possible options to deal with any likely attack. We must keep a range of different options—large, medium-sized and small.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is unqualified support for his policy of modernising the British nuclear deterrent—[Interruption.]—from Conservative Members at any rate, as always? Will he confirm that it is the policy of the Soviet Union to modernise its nuclear defence forces, including its short-range missile systems?

Mr. Younger

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. I think that support for this policy has been amply demonstrated in at least three general elections, and that goes very much wider than just support from Conservative Members. The Soviet Union has recognised the common sense of keeping its weapons up to date. It is modernising its missile systems with the more accurate SS21 system. Furthermore, it is planning shortly to launch two types of sea-launched cruise missiles. These are sensible modernisations of systems which, as far as I know, are not in breach of the INF treaty.

Miss Widdecombe

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the policy of NATO is still to maintain only a minimum deterrence and that this modernisation is within that policy and meets that criterion?

Mr. Younger

I am glad to confirm what my hon. Friend has said. Our deterrent systems are always at the minimum that they can be, and that goes for the Trident system as well. It all comes back to the basic point. Although there might be arguments for or against having various kinds of weapons, I see no argument for having out-of-date ones.

Mr. Wallace

Will the Secretary of State clarify what he said on "Panorama" about stand-off nuclear missiles for Tornado aircraft? How much has been allowed for any modernisation in the general costings to which he referred? Will he give an assurance that any sum that might be spent will not in any way jeopardise projects such as the European fighter aircraft, the new generation of tanks or the surface fleet being maintained at about 50 vessels?

Mr. Younger

We expect to maintain all our main defence commitments with the present budgetary arrangements. There is no difficulty about that. No decisions have been taken on the replacement for free fall bombs. We are examining possible options. We have allowed a generalised amount of money in our forward costings for replacement, but we cannot do anything accurately until we know broadly what the cost of the systems will be.

Mr. Mans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital to update the RAF's nuclear capabilities? The tasks that it has to perform at the moment, and will have to perform in the future, are not the same as those that cruise missiles have performed in the recent past. Further, will he confirm that the USSR already has a nuclear stand-off capability for some of its aircraft?

Mr. Younger

Yes, I confirm my hon. Friend's last point. I understand that the Soviet Union has nuclear capable short-range air-to-ground missiles on its Backfire bombers. It is taking a precaution which some Opposition Members maintain we should not. My hon. Friend is correct in saying that the general provision of weapon systems, as part of our nuclear deterrence, is the vital part of our defence.

Mr. Denzil Davies

Will the Secretary of State say when the decision was taken to replace the freefall bombs on the Tornado aircraft? Was that decision taken at Montebello in 1983, or later? Secondly, i n view of the answers that he has given, could he also tell the House the generalised sum involved in the defence budget for modernisation, as he calls it?

Mr. Younger

We are at far too early a stage to be able to put any definite figure on this. That is not surprising. as we do not yet know the price, the quantity or what type of missile would be available.

As the right hon. Gentleman has asked, it would he helpful if I clarified the position on Montebello. There were three points in the communiqué' issued following the Montebello meeting. First, the Ministers agreed a reduction of 1,400 warheads in NATO's nuclear stockpile in Europe. Incidentally, that has now been completed and has brought NATO's stockpile in Europe to its lowest level for 20 years. Secondly, Ministers agreed on the need for improvements to ensure the responsiveness, effectiveness and survivability of remaining forces. Thirdly, Ministers instructed SACEUR to develop proposals that would implement what Ministers had agreed. Ministers took no decisions on specific weapons systems, but SACEUR came back at the Luxembourg meeting in 1985 with proposals, among which there was the proposal for the deployment of a tactical air-to-surface missile. That is now being pursued as a possibility by the United States, ourselves and France, but no decisions have been taken or are in prospect in the short term.

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