HL Deb 11 February 1981 vol 417 cc201-3

2.54 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will confirm that their decision to maintain the effectiveness of the United Kingdom's strategic nuclear deterrent will be achieved without detriment to other areas of our defence capabilities.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the Government are determined to maintain both our nuclear and conventional capabilities.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that short reply. Will he consider the implications that the financing of Trident could have on other high technology areas of our defence capabilities? Would he not agree that leads in technology are very hard won, and that it would be a tragedy if, through concentrating particularly on the Trident aspect, we were to lose the advantage that we now have in certain weapon systems by being unable to fund continued research and development on other projects?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I would certainly agree with the noble Lord that keeping leads in technology is of vital importance, both to our defence effort and to some of our more advanced industries. As your Lordships know very well, it is also true that in the industrial and defence world of the size that it is today, against the size of Britain within that world, it is a struggle to keep leads in certain areas, and we cannot possibly maintain leads in each and every area. Having said that, I do not think, for the reasons that I have really given in my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, that my noble friend is right in suggesting that the Trident expenditure can be regarded as expenditure which is likely to make it harder to keep leads in high technology. The programme is, as I have said—and it will take some while to work up to it—only 3 per cent. of the defence budget. That is the capital cost of Trident over the period until the mid-1990s. In any event, there is considerable high technology in the building of the submarines for the Trident missiles, and an estimated 70 per cent. of the work that will go into the four-boat force will be produced in this country.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that, if defence spending were maintained at the levels which are planned in any case, but the Trident programme was not included, as a matter of simple arithmetic there would be £5 billion available to spend on improving our conventional forces that will not now be available? Would the Minister not agree, furthermore, that one of the options, as given to me in a Written Answer last Session, would be greatly to improve the effectiveness of our anti-tank force by purchasing another 300,000 infantry-borne anti-tank missiles, which would constitute an extremely effective deterrent against a Russian armoured invasion of Europe?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, of course, if we removed any part of our defence programme, we should have more within a given budget to spend on other things. Over the period, we shall have spent on the Tornado programme, in total capital costs, more than we plan to spend on Trident. So, as I tried to indicate in my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, at 3 per cent. of our defence budget there is, I suggest, an undue focus on Trident. It is to maintain our strategic nuclear deterrent. The costs are in line with the Polaris costs, and we believe that it is absolutely vital to maintain the deterrent in the strategic area and our own contribution to the American deterrent in that area.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, would it not be better to have this discussion not in relation to an Answer to a parliamentary Question, but in relation to the debate which we are to have next week?

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, may I ask the Minister a further question? Would he not agree that we ought not to dispose of any part of Her Majesty's forces, whether conventional or nuclear until, at least—and I emphasise that—the Russians decide to get out of Afghanistan?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell. We must keep a balanced force, and we will continue to increase our spend in real terms in the way that we have done since we came to office. May I say to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, that indeed there are these opportunities. The only reason why I did not rise to answer his question was that I agree with him that they will provide a longer opportunity.

Lord Monson

My Lords, is it not the case that as a result of technological advances the noble Viscount cannot be absolutely confident that within the next 10 years the Soviet Union will not have devised some means of locating and destroying submarines on the seabed? Should this transpire, would not hundreds of millions of pounds have been poured down the drain?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the noble Lord's question is ever present in the minds of all our experts at the head of the services, and of the technical advisers in the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere. We believe that the Trident is the best choice and the most likely to be invulnerable for a very long while to come.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Soames)

My Lords, I hope that the House will agree that we should move on to the next Question.

Lord Davies of Leek

Does that cut my question?

Lord Soames


Lord Davies of Leek

I thank the noble Lord.