HL Deb 04 March 1981 vol 417 cc1380-3

2.41 p.m.

Viscount Hanworth

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 the deployment of the neutron bomb raises any new issues of principle given the implication of the Government's Answer to a Written Question (Official Report, 12th February 1981, col. 400) that the bomb is merely a variant of existing nuclear weapons.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, technically, the neutron bomb raises no new issues of principle. It is, as the noble Viscount observes, only a variant of nuclear weapon design, with special characteristics, which offers one possible way of enhancing NATO's ability to deter a massive Russian armoured attack on Western Europe. But it is understandable that any new nuclear weapon of whatever kind should be a matter of public concern.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that reply. Does he realise that he has made exactly the points that I wanted made? May I therefore leave it to any other noble Lords to ask further questions; I shall not ask a supplementary question on this occasion.

The Earl of Kimberley

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether it would be in the interests of this weapon—which I believe is the enhanced radiation weapon—if it was always called that and not this slang of "neutron bomb" which, in the minds of the general public, implies something like the bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which it is not?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that perhaps the technical description would be less emotive than the term "neutron bomb" has become.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, is the noble Viscount the Minister aware that I am very grateful for the indulgence of the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, and I have his permission to ask a supplementary question? As there appears to be a great deal of mystery about the neutron bomb, may I ask this on behalf of the general public and Members of your Lordships' House? Do the Government intend to manufacture the neutron bomb and if possible, in an emergency, to deploy it? What is the possible effect? Does it blast and, if it blasts, what is likely to be the effect of the blasting? Also, what is it going to cost? There is a great mystery about it. Can we not be fully informed?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have no intention of manufacturing the neutron bomb and are not doing any development work upon it. It is being considered again, along with every other aspect of United States defence, by the new Administration and they have promised to consult their allies as a result of any conclusions they reach. So far as deployment is concerned, I would say to the noble Lord that apparently the main purpose perceived by military commanders is in deployment against massed formations of tank offensives. That clearly indicates a deployment in the regions where such an attack is liable rather than in this country.

Regarding the nature of the weapon, my technical knowledge is extremely weak but it is an enhanced radiation weapon, which means, as I understand it, that it has fewer of the characteristics which knock down physical things and more of the radiation. But this is essentially a matter of degree and it is, as I said in reply to the original Question, essentially another version of a nuclear weapon.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, does the Minister remember that his late right honourable friend Reginald Maudling described the nuclear bomb as "the final abuse of God"? Is it not a fact that the neutron bomb would negate the whole of creative evolution in destroying not only all human beings but all life, birds and nature, leaving only material things? Should such a weapon be accepted by those who believe in the value of life and in human universal identity?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I think all weapons, and above all nuclear weapons, are so horrific as almost to defy imagination. I do not think there is anybody in Her Majesty's Government or in this House who does not think that; and I do not think that the noble Lord, if I may say so, has any monopoly of thoughts in that direction, nor any monopoly of working towards arms control on a balanced basis.

Earl Cathcart

My Lords, would my noble friend confirm that the Warsaw Pact countries also have the capability of deploying neutron bombs?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, it is believed that they know how to make such weapons; but I invite your Lordships to consider the role that military commanders see for such a weapon to use against a massed armoured attack, and that it is clear that the Russians are not expecting a massed armoured attack from the West.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, is it within the noble Viscount's memory that the Popes once condemned the invention and manufacture of crossbows as the final abuse of God?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, it is not in my own memory, but my father, speaking at the Cambridge Union in 1925, said that the aeroplane was the most offensive weapon ever invented and that if he had the casting vote he would say "abolish the air". He did not have the casting vote; and we cannot disinvent nuclear weapons, either.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if the Minister says that the main purpose of the neutron bomb is to deter a massed armoured attack, will he recall that in an answer given to me by one of his colleagues it was said that 300,000 laser-guided anti-tank weapons could be purchased for the amount of money that is being spent on Trident? Would not the noble Viscount therefore consider whether we should advise the Americans that very large quantities of these weapons could be deployed with the money which would otherwise be spent on the development of the neutron bomb?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I think our allies, the United States, with their military advisers, and Her Majesty's Government, with all their military advisers, are quite capable of considering all the pluses and minuses of these awkward but necessary decisions to be taken in the world in which we live.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, would the noble Viscount say whether I am correct in interpreting his answer as saying that the neutron bomb is less a matter of principle than of target probability, and that, since the neutron bomb would obviously be a very high target probability for the Russians, it is OK by us so long as it is deployed somewhere else?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I think that the first part of the noble Lord's suggestion in his supplementary question is a statement of military appreciation as it stands. What I intended to convey in one of my answers in relation to the second part was that, if the perceived military use of this weapon is of a tactical nature to destroy particularly a large-scale offensive of tanks, then its applicability clearly is to those who see a threat of a large-scale attack of armoured vehicles, and I do not think that the Russians do see such a threat. In the hope that we have reached the end of this subject, I just want to take the opportunity of saying once more that the Americans are only considering this weapon along with all their other weapon options, at a moment when they are reviewing their defences and at a moment when they are reviewing a possible initiative to continue the SALT arms control discussions.

Lord Hale

My Lords, can the noble Viscount say precisely what role this weapon is intended to play in defence? Furthermore, are we really correct in talking about defence, in view of what the noble Viscount himself said in answer to a previous supplementary question a moment or two ago?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I think that all weapons that are being considered by the alliance are for defensive purposes. On this one, I want to say again that there is no current US intention. There is a statement that they are considering it and that they will consult us if their considerations lead anywhere at all.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords having forgone my supplementary question, may I now ask the Minister this: Will he confirm that the neutron yield is probably four or five times that of the conventional bomb but, bearing in mind that the blast effect and other effects go as a square, we are still getting from the neutron bomb a very substantial blast effect and effects from other factors of the bomb?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, as I said earlier, it is a question of degree. The noble Viscount is quite correct. The radiation effect is greater, but the blast is smaller. I cannot comment on the exact figures that the noble Viscount mentioned.