HL Deb 18 January 1982 vol 426 cc411-3

2.43 p.m.

Lord Kennet

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 not follow President Reagan's lead, and no longer call certain nuclear weapons "theatre" or "tactical" when they are, in fact, as strategic to us as any weapon in the world.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, the terms "strategic", used to describe those nuclear weapons systems defined as such in the Strategic Arms Limitation agreements, and "theatre", covering all other land-based nuclear forces, have been used generally in the past. It is preferable to talk in terms of range wherever possible, and I therefore welcome President Reagan's decision to describe the current negotiations in Geneva as dealing with intermediate range nuclear forces. But, while I have considerable sympathy with the thought expressed in the Question, the terms "strategic" and "theatre" have come to have well-understood meanings and they will still inevitably be widely used.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, is it not the case that the widely understood meanings which they have come to have profoundly corrupt perceptions of reality? Is it not also the case that all nuclear weapons are highly strategic to those upon whom they may land? Can the noble Viscount undertake that in their publications and official utterances from now on the British Government will use the new nomenclature; namely, identifying the system by range?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, as I have already said, since we have sympathy in wanting to use "range" wherever possible, we shall use it wherever we can, but there are no terms which cover everything without any form of doubt. To try to change the existing meaning of those terms would be difficult. So far as the perhaps unfortunate implications of the term "theatre" are concerned. I agree entirely with the noble Lord and would take this opportunity to say that theatre nuclear weapons, along with all others, are part of deterrence to war.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that for some time now the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has been pressing both the United States Government and the British Government to accept this change in terminology and that the description of the Geneva conference as the intermediate range weapons conference is a considerable personal success for him?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, whether President Reagan's decision to use the term is entirely due to the efforts of the noble Lord I do not know but, as I have already said, the Government welcome using range wherever possible.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, is the term "inter-regional" acceptable in place of "intermediate", or is "intermediate" regarded as the same thing as "inter-regional"?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, if I heard the noble Lord correctly, he asked me whether "intermediate" and "inter-regional" are the same thing. Without a definition of what the noble Lord means by "inter-regional"—perhaps he would write to me on it—I hesitate to answer.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, if we wish to change from the conventional use, which used to be "theatre" and "strategic", have we really made a good selection in choosing "intermediate"? I remember my friend Aneurin Bevan on one occasion, objecting to somebody calling himself "a centre man", saying, "What does he mean? He has to look to his left and then he has to look to his right before he can ascertain where he stands". My Lords, intermediate between what and what?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the noble Lord asks me, "Intermediate between what and what?" Between intercontinental strategic missiles on the one hand and short-range tactical use missiles on the other.

Lord Duncan-Sandys

My Lords, would the noble Viscount agree that whatever arguments there may be about vocabulary we ought to be concentrating our attention upon securing a balance of power over the whole field and not trying all the time to draw attention to specific weapons? It is a balance of power generally which matters.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend—a balance at the lowest level that we can achieve through the current disarmament initiatives.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that these terminologies are often used to disguise the true horror of these weapons, and is not the terminology which the noble Viscount used just now when he referred to the "counter-force policy" as part of the deterrence somewhat concealing rather than exposing the realities of the new policies which are being advocated on the other side of the Atlantic?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is covering different ground from that covered in the original Question. I would merely say once again that the purpose of retaining all these very powerful—hideously powerful—weapons is to deter an aggressor who clearly at the moment shows no sign of dropping his aggressive habits.