HC Deb 04 February 1992 vol 203 cc119-21
5. Mrs. Fyfe

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what steps he is taking to encourage non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Tom King

The greatest immediate risk of proliferation follows the disintegration of the Soviet Union with its massive nuclear stockpile and large number of nuclear scientists. We are actively involved in discussion with all the former Soviet republics where nuclear weapons are at present located—particularly with Russia. We are also giving full support to the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 687, for the elimination of the Iraqi nuclear weapons programme.

Mrs. Fyfe

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he want the British public to realise that 128 warheads per submarine equals 512 warheads for four submarines, and that that equates to 2,560 Hiroshimas? Even if he seeks to deploy fewer warheads per boat than the maximum possible, why should not other countries follow his example and say that that is also their ideal of a minimum deterrent? Does non-proliferation apply to everyone else but not to us?

Mr. King

The hon. Lady seems quite unaware of the fact that, not long ago, I announced from the Dispatch Box what is effectively a halving of our sub-strategic nuclear weapons. NATO will now restrict itself to only one nuclear system, as opposed to the Soviet Union—or Russia now—with three, and we in NATO can point to the fact that we will soon have about one tenth the number of nuclear warheads that we had 10 years ago. I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise the changes that have taken place. I remind her that, following President Yeltsin's recent visit and the welcome changes in connection with what is a hugely large arsenal of nuclear weapons, the top priority of proliferation at present is to ensure that we take action in the ways that I described in my answer. The fact that the hon. Lady rose with a prepared supplementary, ignoring the significance of the massive problems of the time, does her little credit.

Mr. Nicholls

Does my right hon. Friend agree that even if one ignores what is happening in the former USSR, there are other countries in the world that are potential aggressors and which either have nuclear capacity or may be near to acquiring it? Would not it be the height of folly to give away our own independent nuclear deterrent while any potential aggressor has the ability to strike at us?

Mr. King

I entirely agree. I was asked about proliferation. We have to face the fact that there is a bigger risk of nuclear proliferation at present than the world has ever known. As a result, while the right approach is to take the most positive steps that we can to help to deal with that problem, we have a duty to our own people also to ensure that we maintain that elementary, basic, minimum safeguard of our own nuclear deterrent. Anybody who dreamt of surrendering that basic safeguard at this time would be doing the gravest disservice to current and possibly to future generations in Britain.

Mr. O'Neill

May I welcome the attempts that the Government are making, in conjunction with the Russians and the Confederation of Independent States, to reduce and dismantle the nuclear weapons arsenals? That is a most welcome and urgent step. In the current discussions about the size of the nuclear arsenal, is the Secretary of State still committed to bringing on stream another replacement for the WE177 free-fall bomb? Although that may not be against a literal interpretation of the wording of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, would not such a move be a gross affront to the potential proliferators who are reconsidering the need to indulge in the acquisition of nuclear weapons? Would it not be better for the country and for the nuclear proliferation process for the Government to abandon their next generation of air-launched cruise missiles?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman's supplementary question ignored the fact that we are talking about NATO policy. In fact, we are talking about a proposed change in NATO policy, that is what matters—not about a unilateral decision by the Government—which was agreed at the London NATO summit. We are considering the options at the moment, and I have nothing to add to that.

Mr. Dickens

Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that it is absolutely necessary for us to have a minimum deterrent so that the people of the United Kingdom are safe? In terms of that deterrent, is it not right that when a submarine is cruising anywhere in the world's oceans, any potential aggressor who attacks the United Kingdom will stand the risk of unacceptable and devastating retaliation from us?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; that is precisely the point. Indeed, that is precisely the point which was so clearly recognised by President Yeltsin. We have criticised the building-up of such a huge nuclear arsenal, but my hon. Friend may have noticed that President Yeltsin is talking of reducing the number of warheads to 2,500, which he regards as reducing to a deterrent. We believe that it is right to have a minimum deterrent so that no potential aggressor can think that this country could be attacked and that they could be unaffected by any retaliation.