HC Deb 12 January 1998 vol 304 cc12-3
9. Dr. Julian Lewis

If a decision to reduce the number of warheads on a Trident missile would result in cost savings. [20204]

Mr. George Robertson

The financial implications of any changes we might make in deployed warhead numbers on Trident missiles are being considered in the strategic defence review.

Dr. Lewis

I am in no way asking the Secretary of State to prejudge the findings of the strategic defence review, but I am asking whether it is physically possible for the number of warheads on a Trident missile to be reduced without massive cost. Is he aware that, the last time an incoming Labour Government cut the warhead potential of the deterrent—that was the Wilson Government in the 1960s—and cut it for similar political reasons, it was necessary to introduce the Chevaline project to multiply the number of warheads, which added 60 per cent. to the cost of the entire system? Can he promise us that the same sort of mistake will not be made again for doctrinal reasons?

Mr. Robertson

I can tell the hon. Gentleman a fact, known to the previous Government and to this Government, which is that the Trident system allows considerable flexibility in the number of warheads loaded on the missiles, and changes can be made without any additional cost. I also underline the fact that we will deploy on our Trident submarines only the minimum number of warheads required for credible deterrence in current circumstances.

Mr. Cohen

Is this not so much a matter of cost as a matter of non-proliferation? Did we not say in opposition that there was not a case for any more warheads on Trident than there were on Polaris? Does it not take a leap of imagination to say that, with the cold war over, there should be more warheads on Trident now than there were on Polaris then?

Mr. Robertson

As my hon. Friend knows only too well, we fought the election on a manifesto which said that we would maintain Trident. However, we also made it clear—I draw this specifically to my hon. Friend's attention in view of what he said—that, within the framework of the Trident missile system, the strategic defence review will look at all aspects of our current deterrence requirements, including nuclear warhead numbers, as we assess the prevailing circumstances.

Mrs. Ewing

On behalf of the nationalist parties I extend our sincere condolences to the Minister for the Armed Forces on the tragic and sudden loss of his wife.

In the context of Trident, does the Secretary of State recall a written answer given on 4 December which said that operational costs were estimated at £200 million per annum? However, since then, additional nuclear warheads have been purchased. How does he square that with stories suggesting that he has done a deal which would mean that the national minimum wage would not apply to the armed forces? What does he regard as more important—Trident or the personnel who give us such good service?

Mr. Robertson

On the hon. Lady's first point, the operating costs of the Trident submarine fleet have been estimated at £200 million a year over the 30-year lifetime of the system. That would include the ordering of the Trident missile bodies, which was actioned in the summer of last year.

The question of the national minimum wage in no way relates to the civilian employees of the Ministry of Defence, who will be fully covered by that legislation. In relation to the armed forces, as the hon. Lady would expect, what concerns us is their operational and military effectiveness. Against that background, we shall make judgments about the national minimum wage. However, I remind the hon. Lady that an independent pay review body was established specifically to examine the circumstances, pay and conditions of members of the armed forces. One of the duties of that pay review body is to take into account the circumstances prevailing in industry outside the armed forces.

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