HL Deb 18 May 1978 vol 392 cc580-602

7.53 p.m.

The Earl of KIMBERLEY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have for the future of the British nuclear deterrent. The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Question that I am raising tonight is not one about which I am optimistic of getting an answer one way or the other, but if it could serve as a starter towards reaching a decision at some time in the near future, so much the better. I fully realise that the decision which has to be made does not have to be made immediately; nevertheless, it is a decision, or a problem, which is not going to disappear. It will have to be faced by us at some time in the comparatively near future—perhaps in something like 18 months.

No matter how much the present Government or any future Government may wish, this problem will remain and will not go away. Without a crystal ball it is very difficult to foresee what the situation of the world, and indeed of Europe, may be in the 1990s. However, one can make various assumptions. They may not necessarily be correct, but that does not really matter. For instance, NATO may not exist or it may exist in a modified form. The United States may no longer be in Europe. It is even possible that there will be some form of federal European defence. But there is one thing that I think is reasonably certain, and that is that France will still have its own nuclear deterrent. In the likely, or unlikely, event that the SALT talks will have achieved nuclear disarmament, on a smaller or larger scale, all well and good—though I myself very much doubt whether the Russians really will ever agree to that sort of thing.

So, if the situation is rather uncertain, where does the United Kingdom stand? I think we should be prepared for the worst, and therefore we need to be in a position where France certainly will not be the undisputed leader in the defence of Europe. Therefore it follows that we probably should have our own nuclear deterrent, because if we do not look after ourselves nobody else is going to bother to.

Again, there is the possibility—Heaven forbid it!—that we shall have an extreme Left-Wing Government in the United Kingdom; and if that should be the case then the question we are discussing tonight really will not arise because we shall have lost all the things that we, as freedom-loving people, believe in. However, if we assume that this unhappy state of affairs does not arise, I think we must be in a position of strength, because it is only from a position of strength that we can establish our leadership of European defence and, simultaneously, be a voice which is not only heard but listened to and which is capable of exerting much influence on world politics.

I have said in this Chamber on numerous occasions that it is quite impossible to have detente unless you have reasonable parity of strength between the opposing sides. My noble friend Lord Gladwyn raised this question of the British nuclear deterrent in our Defence debate on 20th April and I am very happy to know that he is going to take part in this Unstarred Question tonight. I know that the answer he received—which was not in the debate itself—was not at all satisfactory: at least not to my way of thinking. I was going to read out the Answer but it would probably be better if my noble friend did that. The basis of it was that there are no plans for a successor to Polaris. My Lords, I do not think that that is a good enough Answer. I believe that at this time our present Polaris force is still very largely dependent on the United States for testing, for the material for the propulsion unit reactors, for the missiles themselves and for the propellants of the missiles. These propellants, even with refrigerated storage, have a limited shelf-life. Our present force is also largely, if not entirely, dependent on United States satellites and beacons for its navigational fixes, which are, of course, absolutely vital to the launching of a missile.

I should like briefly to mention the communications that we have. I am led to understand that these are carried out by very low frequency radio and that the British transmitter is at Rugby. There are, or were, two other transmitters: one at Halifax in Canada and the other at Simonstown in South Africa. I should very much like to know whether those other two transmitters are still in operation because, if the worse came to the worst, Rugby is extremly vulnerable and virtually indefensible against a first nuclear strike from an adversary. So I should very much like to be assured by the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, that if, by chance, the United States decided to pull out of Europe, our Polaris force would still be completely effective for the next 10 years.

I shall not go into details as to what type, or types, of future nuclear deterrent we should have, whether it be gravity bombs, Cruise missiles or ballistic missiles. I shall similarly not go into the type of launching platform that there should be, whether land, air, surface ships or submarines. I am sure that one of the questions that would be raised by Her Majesty's Government, if we were to go ahead with our own deterrent, is the cost. But I have always been a firm believer that where there is a will, there is a way. For instance, we had a small discussion yesterday about exporting more defence equipment to friendly countries, and such exports could help to pay for our deterrent; and, of course, if we chose a submarine force it would provide a lot of extra work, which is sorely needed in our shipyards.

I shall conclude by stating that, even with the most optimistic assumptions, a new force of submarines—which, on the face of it, seems most suitable—armed with Cruise missiles would probably not be ready till 1993, even if it was started in 1980, and that is only 18 months away. While an equivalent submarine force, fitted with a Polaris type of ballistic missile, would be in service very little earlier. So I should like tonight to try to get not a promise, but a consideration that this Government, or any future Government—whether it changes in the immediate future, or in the distant future—will, for the sake of the British people, and to keep them in the picture and informed, produce a Green Paper on the subject, because we do not have very much time in which to decide.

8.2 p.m.


My Lords, we are indeed very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for giving us an opportunity to discuss this very important question this evening. We have now had our own effective nuclear deterrent, in the shape of the Polaris submarines, for just under 10 years. But for 30 years, British Governments of both major political Parties have continuously taken the view that a strategic nuclear deterrent is an essential part of Britain's defences. As Ian Smart put it recently, in a report from the Royal Institute of International Affairs: There is now approaching one of these rare moments at which that view must either be positively reaffirmed or drastically revised. Inertia alone will not suffice. Our nuclear deterrent serves a very useful purpose not because it provides a minor element in the array of nuclear devices open to NATO, but because it is a totally independent one and a British one. We can justifiably feel very proud of the part that many of our scientists have played in the development, at various stages, of our nuclear deterrent. It must be maintained and the Conservative Party's conviction was very clearly expressed by my right honourable friend Sir Ian Gilmour, at the Kiel Security Forum in West Germany in January this year.

There is no doubt that replacement of Britain's Polaris missile will be one of the most urgent decisions to be taken by the next Conservative Government. Because of President Carter's rather weak and dangerous see-sawing act in postponing the manufacture of the neutron bomb, and a continuing massive Soviet build-up of their military strength, Britain cannot possibly renege on her commitment to NATO. Western civilisation is threatened by the highly intolerant eye of the Kremlin which can, in the end, recognise only strength and power.

NATO is certainly a more than useful group of fighting forces, supported by their respective Governments, and without it those countries would have to form other, and probably more complicated, alliances. With good management, NATO will go on for years, with or without any hiccoughs or indigestion from consuming such things as Turkish delight. But different countries are bound to have occasional internal problems, and we hope that none of them is sufficient to lead to the break-up of NATO. Nevertheless, like good Boy Scouts we must be prepared for all eventualities and plan to see what would happen if NATO became weak or ineffective.

In this, I hope, unlikely instance an independent nuclear deterrent would stand us in very good stead. But when we think of whether to replace some of our ageing equipment, there are many different aspects to consider. One is the cost and our ability to pay for replacements that we want, and that is a prime factor which has to be carefully weighed up. Without a good defence force, all else that we strive for can be lost all too quickly, as history has shown many times. We can certainly kiss goodbye to all our welfare services, holidays and other trappings of material life if an invader overpowers us.

As a Party, the Conservatives have always believed in spending money on defence, but a replacement for Polaris would certainly not be cheap and any large expenditure such as this would have to be very carefully costed, as it would inevitably place a strain on our resources. I am confident that the next Conservative Government will boost the economy sufficiently to provide greater individual stimulus, so that the general wellbeing of this country improves radically. It therefore stands to reason that a Conservative Government would have an easier task than the present Government in finding money for useful purposes and avoiding needless waste. Some facts relating to this were put quite well in Monday's debate in your Lordships' House, on international arbitration. While talking of needless waste, I must admit that I wish I had been paid to stay on at school.

But in financial terms, it is reasonable to suppose that there would be a ceiling on what could be spent, so that we can almost certainly afford only one technical option; an option on our current nuclear deterrent, which is known publicly to be four submarines, which is probably the absolute minimum needed to keep a permanent and consistent ability to use these weapons at any time. Let us hope that they never have to be used, but their life of usefulness is estimated at 20 to 25 years, and the time estimated to build up a replacement could easily be 13 years.

If we say that 1993 will be the last year in which we can keep our present submarines going, as the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, suggested, we have only one clear year before we have to make a major decision on the Polaris replacement. It is not very far away, so what should we choose and do we buy from a friend or make our own? Do we need more submarines or manned aircraft or surface ships or, perhaps, land-based weapons? We can afford only one type, so which will be the most reliable and the most accurate?

I certainly hope that all those who are privy to the highly secret information, upon which a decision is to be based, will take the very best advice and will take it in time; not only that, but do what is difficult for a Government, which is to implement its decision so that future generations and leaders are left with a good and worthy inheritance, and not a millstone around their necks. I can only treat with great scorn the answer given by the Government on 8th November in both Houses, that they have no plans for a successor to the Polaris force, which has many years of effective life ahead of it."—[Official Report, 8/11/77; col. 27.] As I have just tried to explain, it may take 13 years to provide a replacement, so it is madness to make a statement like that. The Government's attitude leaves an enormous vacuum and does not show any leadership whatsoever. Who knows what will be happening in 13 years' time? Crystal gazing, as the noble Earl also said, has been described as having a 50–50 chance of being right or wrong. Correct forecasting should be easier with the marvels of modern science in this computer-linked age. But so much for the financial aspect.

There is also a political argument which has very strong implications. Our contribution to NATO is partly our deterrent, and any decision on its replacement must be in keeping with our existing commitment to NATO. We have also had a bilateral agreement with the United States. These relations will be affected by our decision. Our relationship with Europe will also be affected on a political plane, but there is one fact that we must never forget: that the essential purpose of a nuclear deterrent is not to fight a war but to provide a permanent political message. We must never forget the factor of wider international collaboration in achieving a replacement for Polaris and the even wider issue of arms control throughout the world. If we as a country give up all ideas of having our own nuclear deterrent, as the Labour Party would have us do, the decision would undoubtedly affect NATO —perhaps only marginally, but it would certainly leave us open to the ultimate threat from a potential enemy.

Here I must pour some cold water on all the fuss about the recent comments which were made by the Chief of the Defence Staff. Of course, we must try to sort out our political differences with the Warsaw Pact. From that, we may, if we are successful, reduce any military tension. However, of all the critics of Sir Neil Cameron I would ask only this: who have all their nuclear missiles pointing at the Western world, and what targets do they think our own weapons are pointed at? There is no argument about this, so why do we have to try to play charades all the time?

Facts are facts. My Leader, Mrs. Thatcher, has always made it clear that the Conservative Party regards the relentless growth in Russian military strength as more significant than any purely verbal gestures in favour of détente on the part of Mr. Brezhnev or other leaders. In an era of so-called détente, the whole emphasis of the Soviets' enormous military expansion has shifted to attack rather than defence. On land, on the sea and in the air, their forces are certainly geared for offensive action. Military Balance, which was published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, concludes: In general, the pattern is one of military balance having moved steadily against the West. In tanks, combat aircraft and artillery, the Warsaw Pact has an advantage of two or three to one". I shall not labour this point, but it is a rather major point which has been frequently missed recently.

If we were to give up our Polaris missiles, we would still have other weapons, such as those carried in aircraft. If we gave up all our nuclear weapons, we would still have the technical knowledge to take up a nuclear programme at any time that we wanted. We have got the know-how and the skill, but there are many questions still to be answered regarding the SALT talks and the nonproliferation treaty. If agreement on limiting the range of weapons is reached, then our new generation of nuclear weapons would have to be in line with these agreements. If we decided not to go ahead with replacements for Polaris, there is no doubt that this would almost certainly not influence France, as she would then be the only strategic nuclear power in Western Europe.

One thing, however, is certain: that the Government of the day must by 1980 have looked most carefully into all the aspects, consulted all the right people and had enough time to discuss all the relevant issues about the replacement of our Polaris fleet. But let us ensure that, when the decision is made, it is made in good time and for the right reasons. It must not be a political football but a careful judgment after intense deliberation which should be started very soon indeed.

I think that the people of this country will refuse to pay the price of this Government's slavish reliance upon appeasement and the pacifist pleadings of their Left wing. The next Conservative Government will honour the British people's determined commitment to safeguard the freedom for which so many have died, and we shall certainly maintain Britain's nuclear deterrent.

8.14 p.m.


My Lords, I cannot rise to speak in this debate without paying my respectful tribute to the memory of the late and much lamented Lord Selwyn-Lloyd. He had an astonishing career of public office. What I remember are the signal services which he rendered by acts of high courage and high statesmanship to the United Nations. If the Special Session of the United Nation's General Assembly on Disarmament, which is to meet next week, reaches a practical result, it will be not least because of break-throughs which Lord Selwyn-Lloyd achieved in the long drawn debate which will be resumed on Tuesday next.

I do not follow the noble Lords who have spoken. They will forgive me; they will think that what I say is irrelevant to the purpose which they have in mind. I believe, with all respect, that it goes to the very heart of the problem they have raised. No one respects more than I the independence of the BBC. They take orders from no one, not even from the Government themselves, and that is why they have a position of unique prestige throughout the world. The fact that they take no orders from the Government does not mean that the Government cannot make suggestions to the Director-General and his colleagues.

I am going to ask the noble Lord who will reply to this debate to suggest to the Director-General that the Government would view with favour a showing of the film, "The War Game". "The War Game" was commissioned by the BBC 10 years ago for general showing. It depicts what would happen if a nuclear bomb, one megaton in yield, should fall in Kent. It was commissioned for general showing, but when it was completed the BBC decided not to use it. When I asked them why, they told me it was because if fathers saw it on their screens they would kill their children, mothers would commit suicide by jumping out of windows, and other horrible things would happen. If nuclear war is really like that, I believe that the more the British people know about it the better for all concerned. The BBC were adamant that it should not be shown. They released it, however, for private showing. There are three films extant, booked up for three months to come. After 10 years the film is still making a great impact upon the audiences which see it.

I believe that the Government should now suggest to the BBC that on the eve of the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly it would be appropriate that, at long last, the British public should see this film. Why do I say this? Twenty years and 20 weeks ago Doctor Isidor Rabi, the Chairman of President Eisenhower's Committee of Scientists on Nuclear War, said, in a speech which he thought was unreported, that the facts of atomic warfare have just not penetrated. That goes for the Heads of States; otherwise they would ponder these facts every day as their number one daily problem". In the same year, Mr. Gordon Dean, a former Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, wrote a book, Report on the Atom. He had produced vast stocks of weapons for the United States Army, Navy and Air Force, but he lost his job because he had asked the question, "When is enough enough?" In his book, Mr. Gordon Dean said as follows: Atomic energy has brought something new in international affairs. Hitherto the question was always peace or war but now the question is peace or oblivion"— and by "oblivion" he meant the final disappearance of the human race. He said, Men have not yet decided for peace or for oblivion and they seem to think that they can go on indefinitely without deciding for the one or for the other. Perhaps they can, but the risks are enormous". He proposed in his book—it was the purpose of the book—a vast, worldwide campaign by every organ of every Government to make the peoples understand what nuclear war would mean.

Some years later, our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, wrote a book, Scientists and War, in which he poured scorn on the writings of the so-called strategic analysts of the United States of America. He said that the only yardstick by which we could measure the effects of a nuclear war was our actual experience of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His words sent me to Hiroshima to find out, if I could, what the bomb had really meant to the people of that city and to the people of Japan. Four times I have made the journey; four times I have seen the pictures of the city as it was on the day the bomb was dropped, the mutilated victims, the hideous mutilations of the victims who were present on that occasion but who remained alive.

Last August I stood with a vast concourse of the citizens of Hiroshima beside the cenotaph in the Peace Park and I relived with them what had happened so many years before. Greatly daring, I want to make your Lordships relive it, too.

Sixth August, 1945, 8.15 a.m. A lovely summer day, sunshine, gentle breezes, blue sky. Blue sky is for happiness in Japan. The streets are full of people: people going to work, people going to shop, people—smaller people, going to school. The air raid siren sounds. No one pays attention; no-one goes to shelter. In this enemy raid there is only a single aircraft in the sky. The aircraft steers a course across the city. Above the centre, something falls. It looks very small but in fact it weighs four tons. The weight is in the iron casing; the bomb itself is tiny —2 kg or less than five lb. in weight—a little larger than a cricket ball.

It falls—and falls—and falls. Ten seconds, 20, 25. Then there is a sudden searing flash of light, brighter and hotter than a thousand suns. Those who are looking directly at it have their eyes burnt in their sockets. They will never look on men or things again. There are people walking in the open street below. A business man in charge of great affairs, a lady as beautiful as she is elegant, a brilliant student—the leader of his class, a little girl laughing as she runs. They are in the open street below. And then suddenly they are not there. They have simply vanished from the surface of the earth, utterly consumed by the furnace of the flash. Nothing of them remains. There is no dust even on the pavement, no ashes. Only their black shadows on the stones.

Then comes the blast. Blast like nothing ever known before. Thousands of miles an hour. For two kilometres every house and every structure is levelled to the ground. Lorries, cars, men and women, babies; prams are picked up and hurled like lethal projectiles through the sky, a hundred metres before they fall. The blast piles up its victims in heaps of bodies in the corners of the streets. I know a man and woman whose little boy was going to school when the bomb exploded. For seven days they hunted for him in the city. At last they found him —one layer down in a heap of corpses; he was still breathing, but not all the doctors in Hiroshima could save his life.

Then the fire ball of the bomb touched the earth. Scores of conflagrations fanned by tornado winds were swept into a single fire storm. Countless thousands of men and women and children, trapped on every side by walls of flame, swiftly or in longer agony were burned to death. Then everything went black. The mushroom cloud rose to 40,000 feet, blotting out the sun. It was the writing on the wall of Heaven; "by this the race of men may die". It carried with it the poison dust, the deadly fall-out. The fall-out came back to earth and covered everything in Hiroshima not already rendered lethal with its poison dust. So those who escaped the flash, the river, the blast, the fire, would die of radioactive sickness in a shorter or a longer time. On that fatal morning 30 years ago", wrote the Science Editor of The Times on 6th August 1975, the immediate death of 240,000 people was only the first scene in the tragedy of the original atomic bomb. Thousands of others were severely injured by the heat, the blast, the radiation of an explosion equivalent to 12,000 tons of TNT"— by today's standards a nuclear midget. And the Science Editor went on: Thirty years later the incidence of leukaemia among young adults who were only embryos in their mothers' wombs when the bomb exploded is very high". He also said: The nuclear powers have in their missile and bomb silos enough destructive might to wipe all life from earth many times over". The Science Editor gave his article the title, "Why does nobody take the growing nuclear peril seriously?" Why does no one understand that a bomb of little less than Sibs in weight, a little larger than a cricket ball in size, killed a quarter of a million people 30 years ago and is still killing them in Hiroshima today? Why does nobody understand this? Because, as Rabi said so long ago, the facts of nuclear war have just not penetrated. They have not penetrated yet. But I believe, my Lords, that the first of all the duties of the Government is to make it certain that they do.

The Marquess of TWEEDDALE

My Lords, with due respect, there is one thing the noble Lord has forgotten in that speech. That is the fact that that bomb saved a quarter of a million lives of American, British and Commonwealth prisoners of war.

8.33 p.m.


My Lords, it is very difficult to follow my noble friend Lord Noel-Baker. It is a moving picture which he gave us. I should like to reply to the last intervention. I think noble Lords will find, if they look at history, that it is not quite true, and the debate in history is not on the basis of that argument. That is an argument that is used, but it is not sustainable. The fact was that the war was over before Hiroshima. I cannot, even with all my admiration and devotion to Philip Noel-Baker, achieve anything like his eloquence on this subject. I might have anticipated what the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, was going to raise, but I did hope when I read the Question— To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have for the future of the British nuclear deterrent"— that perhaps from my noble friends on the Front Bench we might have got the proper answer, which is "None".

I had hoped, and I still hope, that when the British delegation, the Prime Minister of this country and my noble friend Lord Noel-Baker, go to the Disarmament Conference which is coming on, we, Britain, at last would say, "We at least know and understand what Lord Noel-Baker has been talking about." We might have done, and we might still do, what we should have done 25 years ago. We should have disowned the bomb and never had any part of it. It was a cheat, a snare and a delusion. When Britain got itself into the whole bomb situation I personally was a reporter at a Press Conference after the Prime Minister of Great Britain went for his discussions in Washington with President Truman and Mackenzie King. They were to settle the sacred trust by which they were to take responsibility for what had been released in atomic energy. When he came back he had in fact recovered for Britain the right to go ahead with the peaceful uses, which in fact Mr. Winston Churchill—and this is historical truth—ceded to the Americans in the Hyde Park agreement; at least we had the right to develop, if we wanted to, the peaceful uses.

But we were assured—I assure your Lordships here and now, as one who was present—by the Government at that time that we were not embarking on a nuclear bomb programme. Mr. Churchill, when he became Prime Minister, expressed his gratitude to Mr. Attlee for having presented him with the bomb; nobody, certainly not the House of Commons or the Select Committee on Expenditure or anyone else, had ever known what was going on. That is a burden which I, as a member of my Party, carry with, I hope, the rest of the people in my Party. We are not denying that we went ahead and created this. But we did try, some of us at least, to make the people realise, as my noble friend Lord Noel-Baker has been telling us, what this meant. We did try.

I personally, and many of my colleagues, some of them in this House, were very active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmanent. What were we trying to do? We could not in fact disarm the world. We might hope to have some influence, and indeed we did, on American thinking. We might hope that we might even discourage the Russians from going ahead, as they eventually did. The one thing we did know was that we had a right and a duty to influence our own people and our own Government. At least we were going to ask and require that we would abandon the nuclear bomb.

Since then we have gone on and on. Four years ago I was with two very distinguished friends, Gunnar Myrdal, the Nobel Prize Winner, and Mrs.Alva Myrdal, the Chairman of the United Nations Disarmament Conference, at a time when the British Government, the Labour Government, was in sore distress, terrible distress, economically and looking for savings. We sent a message to the Prime Minister suggesting that obviously and manifestly the cheapest thing and the proper thing to do was at least to get rid of our British deterrent. It is not worth what we are committing to it and what is being proposed. It is unbelievable that we should be talking this way.

What are we going to throw into the kitty? As Lord Noel-Baker was saying, the first bomb was no bigger than a cricket ball, and what we have got in terms of the nuclear deployment is in fact like a small boy with a ball saying, "If I have a ball can I join the game, and can I use your bat?"—the U.S. bat, because that is the important point. We are not independent. Whatever the French may think, their force de frappe is not a significant thing in deterrence. How can it be? What we are talking about is a fantastic situation, a situation which is unbelievable when we listen to the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, explaining what this means.

There is now deployed in the world 8,500 U.S. strategic weapons. We have got worse than that; we have a nuclear minefield in Europe. We have 10,000 tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, and my friends—and I sympathise with them—who are concerned about radiation risks and the Windscale inquiry, are worried about the radiation risks from the refinery. We have already 10,000 fabricated—ready to use—nuclear weapons in Europe. What are we going to contribute to that? I am talking in hard terms. The question about the cost was raised by noble Lords opposite. The cost is not significant because it does not mean anything. It is not even a contribution. What we are facing here is an absurdity.

If 25 years ago we had said, "We are not going to have any part in this", we could have said, "and we can do it". We would have set an example which would have been more important in nonproliferation than anything anyone can suggest now. We could have set an example. We might have set an example when we realised we could not afford it. It would not have been very strong; some people might have suspected that we could not afford it. Today everybody knows that we cannot afford it. Everybody knows that what we have in the kitty is a pittance and meaningless. Cannot we now at this hour, before the disarmament conference, persuade the Government to make a gesture which might still enhance us? We could say now that we are abandoning the so-called nuclear deterrent, and I hope my noble friend will assure us that there is a possibility of doing so.

8.42 p.m.


My Lords, first I should like to add my own modest tribute to the late Lord Selwyn-Lloyd with whom I worked very closely in the United Nations and the Foreign Office. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, that he was a very great influence for good on all disarmament matters. Certainly he was effective at the United Nations. For instance, at the time of Suez, if he had been left to himself perhaps he might even have produced a United Nations solution for that awful problem which might have saved us from a disastrous war. Therefore, again I pay tribute to his memory.

I am sure we have all been deeply moved by the description given by the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, of the horrors of nuclear war. I think we all realise what these horrors are—at least I hope we do. If there was general war today it would not be like Hiroshima; it would be tens of thousands times worse and it might well be the end of the human race as we know it. There is no doubt about that. The question is what we do about it. I am not sure but I rather think that the moral of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, was that we could not go on like this and that we might ourselves make an example by not having any nuclear deterrent, in fact that we might go in for what is ordinarily called unilateral disarmament. That is always a possibility, but even if we did that it is very doubtful whether it would end the great future struggle between the two super Powers and it is questionable therefore whether it would be desirable to do as the noble Lord seems to suggest.

I intervene at the end of this little debate to make a very few remarks. Your Lordships may remember that I asked a few questions in the speech which I made when we had a debate on defence generally, which were not answered at the time by the Government but the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, has very kindly now given me answers in writing. I do not think they are very satisfactory but, still, he has replied. On this particular matter which we are now discussing I am sure your Lordships will not mind if I read out the short answer which the noble Lord gave me. It is labelled "The Future of Polaris", and reads: As you are aware, all our Forces are dedicated to NATO, including the Polaris Force, which is a valuable contribution to NATO's strategic forces. Nothing has happened to make us change our policy on Polaris, which has been stated many times. We shall maintain the effectiveness of the Polaris force along with our other Forces. Some commentators are talking about the need to decide on a successor to Polaris; but it has many years of effective life ahead of it. There is no doubt that it will remain a potent deterrent for many years to come, and there is no occasion for a decision to be taken about what may or may not happen thereafter. We have no plans for a successor to Polaris ". In just a few minutes I should like to comment briefly on that statement. First, the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, says that the Polaris force is a valuable contribution to NATO's strategic Forces. At the risk of appearing to be defeatist I would ask—and I think the question was implicit in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder—how valuable is this contribution in practice? Surely the huge nuclear forces, strategic and tactical, of the United States are a sufficient deterrent in themselves. What can our own rather small, though no doubt very efficient, deterrent in Europe add to this general deterrent? Could our own deterrent ever be used or even threatened individually? I am sure that if your Lordships ponder over this question at all you will come to the conclusion that that is in practice impossible.

Short, therefore, of general disarmament, nuclear disarmament particularly, which we are all anxious to achieve if we possibly can, NATO is our only defence and of course NATO in practice depends entirely on the so-called nuclear shield of the United States. Surely, therefore, if you accept that thesis, and I think you cannot reject it, our so-called deterrent is only valuable in case we are left without United States support in Europe and France therefore, not necessarily but possibly, becomes the only European nuclear Power. That would be a rather grim situation for all of us. The idea that we could effectively defend Europe by setting up some joint Franco-British nuclear deterrent is, I suppose, conceivable but most unlikely. It could probably be done only with the Germans but you must consider the effect of doing that with the Germans or the possibility of general nuclear war.

The next point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, was: There is no doubt that it [our force] will remain a potent deterrent for many years to come". Even if its power to inflict great damage on the Soviet Union continues to exist in some form, some experts—and they are not negligible experts—maintain that by 1990 in all probability we shall only he able to maintain one submarine on duty, if that. So, if we are going to remain a nuclear Power at all, a decision as to possible renewal must come up quite soon.

The Government cannot go on burying their head in the sand. They must face this in the near future. Perhaps they will not be in power very much longer and in that case it will be for the Tory Party to face this decision. It is a very difficult decision to take. Why therefore cannot we have in the near future, as I think was suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, a Green Paper discussing the whole matter quite dispassionately and integrating a possible alternative? It could include the possibility—some people might think it a real alternative—of letting our nuclear deterrent be phased out and, pending an end to the confrontation which is still going on in Central Europe, using the money saved on any replacement to strengthen our conventional forces in Europe, which would among other things please our American allies more than anything else in the world?

Anyhow, whatever the Government may say, efficient though our nuclear deterrent is at the moment, it will be phased out quite soon—effectively, in the next few years. There is therefore a real decision that the Government must contemplate taking. Why, I repeat, cannot they let us have a paper plainly setting out the alternatives? It is surely not too much to ask.


My Lords, I hesitate to inflict myself again on your Lordships, but in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn has just said I should like to clarify my position. I believe that, at present, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves the case for unilateral nuclear disarmament is extremely strong.

Many years ago in another place the Secretary of State for Defence confirmed the suggestion I made that with our stock of nuclear weapons as it then was we could inflict enormous damage on the Soviet Union. However, I do not readily conceive the circumstances in which a British Government—any British Government—would decide to make first use of nuclear weapons.

The plan in which I believe is the plan which Lord Attlee put to the First Assembly of the United Nations as its first Resolution taken here in London. It proposed the abolition of all nuclear weapons, the elimination of atomic weapons from national armouries and the use of nuclear energy for pacific purposes alone. That seems Utopian to many noble Lords, but our Government have advocated that course and still stand by it. Moreover, with President Carter himself a nuclear engineer who understands better than any other statesman in the world what a nuclear war would mean, I believe that the chances for success are better now than they have ever been.

8.52 p.m.


My Lords, like other noble Lords I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for putting down this Question as it now enables me to state the Government's policy on this issue, for I did not have time to cover this topic during the debate on the Statement on the Defence Estimates on 20th April.

Nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence are subjects of the highest importance. Discussion of them tends to generate a good deal of heat as well as light, as the long debate over the proposal to introduce the enhanced radiation warhead—the so-called neutron bomb—showed. But that issue encouraged many people to examine the doctrines of deterrence and the issues which affect our security, which all too often are left to a small circle of professional strategists. Debate on these matters is much to be welcomed. But although I welcome a debate of this kind, your Lordships will appreciate the constraints the Government must observe in responding to it. We are dealing with the ultimate level of our defences. We must inevitably he guarded about what we say both on security grounds and because of the obvious sensitivities for our relations with other countries. I hope, therefore, I shall be forgiven for not dealing point by point with all the issues raised—much as I would like to have done; nor can I give undertakings.

I should, first, like to examine briefly how the rôle of our strategic nuclear weapons has changed over the last two decades, in order to help us to maintain the deterrent effect of our forces as a whole. In the 1950s and early 1960s, we, with the Alliance, relied on the tripwire strategy. This policy clearly stated that any aggression would be met with immediate retaliation on a massive scale from strategic nuclear weapons. Today the drawbacks of such a policy appear obvious, in that minor incidents or accidents could precipitate a nuclear attack; such a prospect is horrifying. Further, this policy became untenable as the strategic arsenals of the nuclear super Powers grew and achieved rough equivalence, with the ability to inflict massive retaliation after a first strike—the chilling spectre of mutually assured destruction.

As the drawbacks of the tripwire strategy became more marked, the Alliance moved to its present strategy of flexible response. I have no need to explain this concept in any detail to your Lordships; we debated the question of strategy at length some months ago. There is no alternative to this strategy of flexible response. The Atlantic Alliance needs to maintain a spectrum of defensive options to demonstrate its ability to respond to aggression at whatever level it could occur. We must maintain robust conventional forces, but we do not attempt to match the ever-growing conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact. To do so we should have to devote so many more of our resources to defence, subordinating many other needs, that our society would no longer be the one we know today.

The Alliance also needs theatre nuclear weapons to deter the use of these weapons by the other side, while in addition they support the conventional defence, and provide the link to strategic forces. The strategic forces, while also serving to deter a strategic nuclear attack, remain the ultimate threat to deter any aggression. We are talking of a policy of deterrence.

Yet we cannot single out any category of forces for special consideration; it is necessary to strike the right balance between the types of forces—the conventional, theatre nuclear and strategic nuclear forces. None of these forces can stand on their own; they all strengthen and support each other. The Question tabled by the noble Earl speaks of the "British nuclear deterrent". But the Polaris force is committed to the Alliance as a whole. This is an important point. The fundamental principle of the North Atlantic Treaty is that an attack on any member of the Alliance is an attack on all. Although the Polaris submarines, like all our neclear forces, are assigned to NATO, they remain under the ultimate control of the British Government. Nothing detracts from this authority over their use. The Polaris force forms part of NATO's strategic forces, and deterrence extends to cover the whole Alliance; nuclear Powers and non-nuclear Powers alike. This principle strengthens the Alliance and in the past has helped limit nuclear proliferation.

Polaris makes a valuable contribution to NATO's nuclear forces, and there is a continuing need for this contribution into the foreseeable future. It is for these reasons that the Government intend to maintain the effectiveness of the Polaris force. The system will remain fully operational into the 1990s. We are taking appropriate steps to ensure that the system can be satisfactorily maintained once the United States Navy phases out its Polaris submarines. We are also taking steps to ensure that the system continues to represent an effective deterrent. There has been a good deal of speculation about what these steps might be, much of it inaccurate. We are concerned to maintain the effectiveness of an existing capability, not to replace it with a new system.

Some commentators have been talking about the urgent necessity of beginning to discuss how Polaris might be replaced when it is ultimately taken out of service, and that was one of the themes of our debate. I believe that this heightened discussion stems in part from interesting papers produced by the Royal United Services Institute and the Royal Institute for International Affairs, which reviewed the issue. We must keep this matter in perspective. As I said earlier, the Polaris fleet has many years of effective life ahead of it. There is no need for a decision to be taken about what may happen thereafter, there are no plans for a successor to Polaris; that is, no plans for any new generation of strategic nuclear weapons.

There has been great interest in the Cruise missile which is currently under development in the United States. As has been said in the past, we are conducting limited studies on the defence potential of this weapon. There is nothing sinister in this. We would conduct studies on any weapon system which had such significant potential applications. In the case of Cruise missiles there is also the important point that they are a matter of great concern in that they have implications for arms control. We need to inform ourselves so as to play an appropriate part in Alliance discussion on this subject. Our studies, which are limited research studies and which do not involve any development at all, have been seen as indicating an interest in a new strategic system. This is perhaps because the United States propose to develop Cruise missiles for use in a strategic nuclear role. There are, however, a number of possible uses for which these versatile systems could be developed, and our own studies should be seen in terms of the potential range of applications of these missiles for the Alliance as a whole.

I have dealt at length with abstract ideas and hypothetical concepts. I should like to end by coming back to reality. Twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, in our Polaris submarines there are men of the Royal Navy. There are generally two, and there is at all times at least one submarine on patrol to provide continuous deterrent coverage. These submarines, with their crews, remain submerged for most of their patrol. Such operating conditions demand a special dedication which is perhaps insufficiently recognised. I think that we should pay tribute to that dedication shown by past and present crews of the Polaris force throughout the years. That is my contribution to this evening's discussion.