HC Deb 09 February 1993 vol 218 cc814-6
7. Mr. Donohoe

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the replacement of the WE177 free-fall nuclear bomb.

Mr. Rifkind

The WE177 is expected to remain in service well into the first decade of the next century. We are studying a range of possible options for its eventual replacement; I will make an announcement at the appropriate time.

Mr. Donohoe

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the WEI77 replacement will cost £3 billion? Will he accept the advice of the former hon. Member for Beckenham, who, on 22 November 1991, asked the Government to halt the replacement of that most expensive and unnecessary system?

Mr. Rifkind

I certainly cannot confirm the figure that the hon. Gentleman used, which I do not recognise. We are looking at a series of possible replacements for the WE177 which could either be an alternative free-fall bomb or another means of achieving a sub-strategic capability. It would be unwise to assume that there is no need for any intervening level of capability between conventional forces and the full power of our strategic Trident system. The whole basis of NATO defence policy, including our policy, has been to allow for the possibility of a graduated response in times of crisis. The hon. Gentleman should also take account of that.

Mr. Wilkinson

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in an era of potential nuclear proliferation around the globe, it remains important for the United Kingdom, if it is to be a significant nuclear power in the future, to deploy a sub-strategic deterrent that is both credible and visible? In that connection, is not it sensible to have an air-launched system such as the one that the French and the Americans will be deploying?

Mr. Rifkind

It is certainly important to ensure that any system that we might choose is credible and reliable. An air-launched system is one option that has to be considered seriously. There are other possibilities and it would be wrong to foreclose any of the options until the work has been done. As I mentioned to the House a few moments ago, our current sub-strategic system will be available until well into the first decade of the next century. Therefore, we can study these matters with the care and detail that they obviously deserve.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity today to exclude the tactical air-to-surface missile as one of those alternatives, because the need for it was conceived when NATO's nuclear doctrine was one of flexible response? Now that NATO's nuclear doctrine is that those weapons are weapons of last resort, what possible justification is there for a tactical air-to-surface missile, not least when a sub-strategic alternative could be achieved by the use of a single missile and single warhead on the Trident D5 system?

Mr. Rifkind

It would be wrong at this stage to exclude any of the options until the work has been done. Although the hon. and learned Gentleman is correct that the strategic situation has changed, as NATO continues to believe that flexible response is an important ingredient and that it is necessary to ensure the sub-strategic system in addition to strategic nuclear weapons, these matters must be considered with all the care that the issue clearly requires.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

Once my right hon. and learned Friend has had time, as I am sure he will, to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest and, I hope, act upon today's report from the Select Committee on Defence, will he note that the most spine-chilling piece of evidence was that nuclear material and weapons are leaching out of Russia into European, Arab and Muslim countries and that 163 countries have now obtained them? Will he state definitely to the House that we will ensure that our capabilities to deal with such weapons are sufficient to deter their use by countries that have unstable Governments and are within reach of Europe?

Mr. Rifkind

The proliferation of nuclear weapons must be a matter of serious concern. At a time when the Soviet Union—the world's second-largest nuclear superpower—is disintegrating, it is an important priority to ensure that the transition of the Soviet Union into its successor states is accompanied by the removal of all nuclear weapons from countries other than Russia and to assist Russia in the dismantling and destruction of surplus nuclear weapons. We must do so partly to prevent the disposal of weapons or their components to other countries.

Mr. Martlew

Yesterday the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that we needed to review the welfare state because public expenditure was out of control. Today we have a damning indictment of the Government by the Select Committee on Defence, which says that we must spend more money on the Army. The answer must be for the Government to abandon their plans for a new nuclear bomb. We would save £3 billion if we scrapped the tactical air-to-surface missile. The Labour party would scrap TASM tomorrow. It is an embarrassment internationally and it has no military capability for the future. I predict that the Conservative Government will scrap TASM. Why does not the Secretary of State tell the House now that he will cancel it?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman says that a Labour Government would scrap TASM tomorrow. It is worth remembering that the same Labour Government would have scrapped Trident yesterday. That speaks for itself on the inadequacy on Labour thought on those crucial issues.

Mr. Dickens

Will my right hon. and learned Friend concede that we never know from where an attack may come? [Interruption.] Yes, even from the Opposition Benches. Does he agree that if we have a nuclear deterrent it must be updated? In the CIS nations inflation is running at 1,000 per cent. People cannot afford coffins to bury their dead. Hospitals cannot afford replacement needles. That group of nations has all the ingredients for another revolution. We must forget what is happening in the rest of the world and make sure that we can defend our nation.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is right to remind us of those considerations. It is worth remembering that in 10 years' time, even if it has fully met all its obligations under the START and successor treaties, Russia will still have more than 3,000 strategic nuclear warheads and will still be the world's second-largest nuclear super-power.