HC Deb 15 October 1991 vol 196 cc139-41
8. Mr. McAllion

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he next intends to meet NATO Ministers to discuss the strategy of nuclear deterrence.

Mr. Tom King

I will meet my NATO colleagues this week at the nuclear planning group meeting in Sicily, where we will discuss a range of current nuclear issues.

Mr. McAllion

As the Government have already welcomed the unilateral cuts in nuclear weapons announced individually by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev, why are they still refusing to make any real cuts in Britain's nuclear weapons? Are the Government still obsessed with the cold war mentality beyond the end of the cold war? If they believe that nuclear weapons are essential to the defence of this country, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House against which enemies our weapons of mass destruction are targeted?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening carefully, because I have already announced our intention to scrap our theatre nuclear weapons—the short-range weapons, the Lance missiles. Earlier, I announced a reduction in the number of dual-capable aircraft. There will be a significant reduction. When the hon. Gentleman has the courtesy to read the NATO communiqué, which will emerge from the meeting tomorrow and the day after, he will see significant changes. The only change that he will not see is that, unlike him, we are not prepared to abandon our nuclear deterrent while other people have nuclear weapons pointed at us. I know that the hon. Gentleman's view is sincerely held. We believe that that view is held by a majority of Opposition Members who have not changed their response at all.

Sir Peter Tapsell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that recent developments in the former Soviet Union, although welcome in many respects, create an even more complex nuclear situation than before? Does he agree that the danger of these weapons proliferating and falling under the control of authorities that have not really understood the concept of the nuclear deterrent in the past means that NATO now needs a new strategy of nuclear deterrence that includes the possibility of intervention in order to prevent one minor power using a nuclear weapon against another?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend makes a perceptive comment. In my speech yesterday I said that the major massive threat that we faced from the totality of the Warsaw pact—the Soviet Union and its satellites—may have gone, but the quality of the threat and the dangers that exist are real. That is particularly so in terms of the custody possession of nuclear weapons and the number of countries that have developed a missile capability and the number that undoubtedly will have a nuclear capability by the year 2000. My hon. Friend draws attention to the great foolishness of those Opposition Members who want to get rid of our nuclear weapons at a time when a minimum deterrent is an essential safeguard for our country.

Mr. Wigley

Given the right hon. Gentleman's statement a moment ago, will he confirm that the Government now accept that the unilateral abandonment of certain nuclear weapons is part of Government policy and that, if circumstances permit, they will pursue that line until more nuclear weapons have been removed?

Mr. King

I do not know how the hon. Gentleman can possibly sustain the idea of unilateralism. President Bush made a proposal to the Soviet Union and President Gorbachev responded smartly. There is the prospect of substantial multilateral reductions—with NATO speaking from a position of strength—which will result in a much more significant reduction in nuclear weapons in the world than would ever have been achieved by the efforts of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Mr. Robert Banks

Is not there an important lesson to be learnt from the discovery of Iraq's potential nuclear capability in ensuring that we maintain our Trident nuclear deterrent to meet the unexpected?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—that is precisely the point. As I said yesterday, maintaining both the Trident nuclear deterrent, or strategic nuclear deterrent, and a sub-strategic nuclear deterrent, or dual-capable aircraft, is an important element. We want a substantial reduction in nuclear weapons in the world, but we must ensure that, while other people have nuclear weapons, we maintain the basic minimum capability to defend ourselves. That is the prudent position. That is the position that the British people want. It is not the position in which the majority of Opposition Members believe.

Mr. O'Neill

Would the Secretary of State care to tell us where he proposes to procure the sub-strategic element to which he has just referred, given that the United States Government have just cancelled their contract with Boeing for SRAM-T short-range attack missiles? Will he follow the American example and set this provocative and unnecessary capability aside for the time being?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman can make that comment only if he totally ignores the wide range of alternative options that the United States has in terms of sub-strategic weapons. We have a number of alternative approaches to the issue of a sub-strategic weapon and we shall continue with our analysis of those.

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