HL Deb 13 April 1960 vol 222 cc1079-84

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Minister of Defence has made the following statement in another place, and I thought it would be for the convenience of your Lordships if I repeated it.

The Government have been considering the future of the project for developing the long-range ballistic missile Blue Streak, and have been in touch with the Australian Government about it, in view of their interest in the joint project, and the operation of the Woomera range.

The technique of controlling ballistic missiles has rapidly advanced. The vulnerability of missiles launched from static sites, and the practicability of launching missiles of considerable range from mobile platforms, has now been established. In the light of our military advice to this effect, and of the importance of reinforcing the effectiveness of the deterrent, we have concluded and the Australian Government have fully accepted that we ought not to continue to develop, as a military weapon, a missile that can be launched only from a fixed site.

To-day our strategic nuclear force is an effective and significant contribution to the deterrent power of the free world. The Government do not intend to give up this independent contribution, and therefore some other vehicle will in due course be needed in place of Blue Streak to carry British-manufactured nuclear warheads. The need for this is not immediately urgent, since the effectiveness of the V-bomber force as the vehicle for these warheads will remain unimpaired for several years to come, nor is it possible at the moment to say with certainly which of several possibilities or combinations of them would be technically the most suitable. On present information, there appears much to be said for prolonging the effectiveness of the V-bombers by buying supplies of the airborne ballistic missile Skybolt which is being developed in the United States. Her Majesty's Government understand that the United States Government will be favourably disposed to the purchase by the United Kingdom at the appropriate time of supplies of this vehicle.

The Government will now consider with the firms and other interests concerned, as a matter of urgency, whether the Blue Streak programme could be adapted for the development of a launcher for space satellites. A further statement will be made to the House as soon as possible.

This decision, of course, does not mean that the work at Woomera will be ended. On the contrary, there are many other projects for which the range is needed. We therefore expect that for some years to come, at least, there will be a substantial programme of work for that range.

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, we are much obliged to the noble Lord for giving us that statement which has been made in another place. The decision which has been arrived at is one that comes after very strong representations with regard to Blue Streak as the carrier, made in debates, in another place especially, and also in your Lordships' House from time to time—in 1957, in 1958, in 1959 and again as recently as in the recent Defence debate. Only now, apparently, has this decision been arrived at, in agreement, I am glad to find, with the Australian Government, in view of its interest a Woomera. But I think that as a result of this statement we must have a debate upon the situation which is thus created, as soon as one can be arranged through the usual channels after the Recess. We do not, of course, take official notice of the announcement in the Evening News that this is only the beginning of a complete upheaval in the whole Defence policy which, it has said, has been passed by the Cabinet this morning. I am quite accustomed to reading such statements. But I feel that we ought to have a debate after the Recess.

In the meantime, may I ask the noble Lord one or two questions? First, what has been the cost of the development of Blue Streak up to this date? Secondly, what is the amount of redundancy expected, industrially and professionally, as a result of the decision which has been announced to-day? Also, what agreement, if any, has been made with our Allies in the course of the considerations that Her Majesty's Government have been giving to this matter, as to what our arrangements with them should be in view of the fact that we are not developing Blue Streak any further? Have we been able to make arrangements for supplies? Have we been able to get any further with regard to the question of new forms of carrier for our weapons? Is there to be, therefore, very much greater integration in this matter than there has been up to the present time?


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition welcomes this decision. As regards a debate on the subject, I should have thought that we had had a very full discussion of all these matters in the Defence debate a few weeks ago, when we went through them in great detail; but if the noble Viscount feels strongly about it, no doubt the matter can be taken up through the usual channels. The noble Viscount asked me three questions, First, the cost of Blue Streak to date is about £65 million. Redundancy is one of the matters which will be discussed during the meetings which are beginning at once; in fact, I believe that a meeting has already started this afternoon. I can assure the noble Viscount that Her Majesty's Government will do all in their power to minimise any dislocation which will result from this decision. Lastly, the noble Viscount asked about arrangements for a successor. I believe that if he will read my original statement, he will see that I made that aspect plain.


My Lords, how can the noble Lord the First Lord of the Admiralty suggest that we discussed these matters in the Defence debate? We are faced with a totally new situation, for this is probably the most serious statement in regard to defence that has been made for many years. We have been told on great authority—that of Sir Frederick Brundrett, former Chief Adviser to Her Majesty's Government in these matters—that if Blue Streak were dropped there would not be an independent British deterrent before 1970; and only last week, on the authority of the noble Lord the First Lord of the Admiralty, the noble Earl, Lord Bathurst, said that urgent discussions were going on about filling the gap, or possible gap. Now we know that there is going to be a gap. How can the noble Lord defend the statement that this is not immediately urgent? Could he tell us what the new time-scale is to be and what aircraft can possibly carry Skybolt, even if we get it before 1970? Would he not agree that in fact we have now to rely on bombers using weapons which in the past have been regarded as likely I to be completely outmoded by 1965?


My Lords, I am sorry to think that the very long speech I made in the debate on Defence was entirely wasted, at any rate on the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. I spoke at great length on this subject, and I hoped that I had convinced some noble Lords, even if I had not convinced him, of what was the policy of Her Majesty's Government in this matter. I hope that he will do me the courtesy of reading the statement I have just made in considerable detail, because the questions he has asked are all answered in that original statement. I do not want to read the whole of it again, but it says clearly that, at the present time, the V-bomber force is viable and that it is not possible, at the moment, to say…which of several possibilities, or combinations of them, would be technically the most suitable".


My Lords, in order to get this matter into a little fairer perspective—for what is said here goes out to the Press, and we cannot have now the debate to which the noble Lord has referred—may I ask whether it is not the fact that a whole new situation has developed which has made Blue Streak much less desirable than it was two years ago? Is it not the fact that the new Mark II bombers are able to deliver both the stand-off bomb and a missile, be it Skybolt or another, and are quite suitable for this purpose? And has there not been an entirely new series of developments which, as I should have thought was evidenced from almost every speech made in this House in two debates, have made it extremely desirable that we should cease to rely upon a static launcher and pin our faith on the mobile launchers? Therefore, is it not a little hard (and I myself have been a considerable critic of Blue Streak) on Her Majesty's Government, when they have come to a conclusion, and pretty rapidly, in consultations with the Governments of Australia and the United States, and when they have taken the decision which almost every speaker in this House said they hoped would be taken, that they should be strongly denounced for taking that decision?


My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to my noble friend Lord Swinton, who, as is almost always the case, has put the position much better than I could.


My Lords, it seems to me that all that has been said so far greatly strengthens our request for an early debate after the Recess. And the First Lord must not think he is getting away with just the speech he has already made, dealing with the entirely new situation created by the announcement of Government policy. The Minister of Defence has not complied entirely with his statement in the House, that the V-bomber force would be viable for a few years. Now it is altered to many years. I am referring to what he said in his speech in another place in the Defence debate. We do not know with any accuracy what is the real, expected size of the whole gap. I think it is absolutely essential in the new position that we should have a proper debate on this immediately after the Recess.


My Lords, as regards the debate, I am sure that there can be discussions through the usual channels, and I am not opposing this. But I really cannot let the noble Viscount get away with what he has just said. The Government's policy and what we have said have been perfectly consistent about V-bombers. He has a copy of the statement; perhaps he will be good enough to read it, and he will see that the statement says that the V-bomber force as a vehicle for these warheads will remain and be effective for several years.


My Lords, would the noble Lord answer the question of the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, as to whether existing V-bombers will be able to carry Skybolt, and does he expect that either Skybolt or a similar weapon is likely to be available much before 1970?


My Lords, I have made it perfectly clear that the Government have not decided which method of delivery of the nuclear warheads should come after the V-bombers, when they have become out of date and unable to play their part in penetrating the defences of any possible enemy. But, when that happens, there are arrangements which could be made.


My Lords, may I support what the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, said about the Government, at least about taking advice which has been offered to them from all sides of the House? Advice was given them from these Liberal Benches on Suez, on Cyprus (particularly in respect of Archbishop Makarios), on the Central African Federation, on Nyasaland and Dr. Banda; and finally on the Blue Streak. If they would care to consult these Benches upon the wisest course to take in other present and future affairs, we shall be very pleased to co-operate.


My Lords, I think that is a fitting climax to this part of the proceedings.


My Lords, it is a pity that we have incurred so much expenditure in the meantime. Perhaps if there were fewer changes of the Minister of Defence we should not go on wasting money.


My Lords, I think the noble Viscount should be content. If a debate is needed we will arrange for it; and it will enable my noble friend, who has made an extremely good speech, to make another.