HL Deb 20 November 1991 vol 532 cc893-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether President Bush's call for the elimination of all intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple warheads affects their policy of continuing with Trident.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, no. The Government have made it clear that they remain committed to proceeding with Trident.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that Answer however negative it was. I thank him more especially for the letter which he was kind enough to send me following the gracious Speech. I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter from the point of view that Trident is a multiple warhead system. Is it not also the case that President Bush has said publicly, and it is quoted in the NATO Review—the official document circulated by the Ministry of Defence—that he hopes to get rid of multiple warhead systems? Does the Minister agree that for us to go it alone and develop a new multiple warhead system in these circumstances is somewhat foolish? Will it not lead once again to the expenditure of a very large sum of money which will be quite unnecessary?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I make it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, that ICBMs should be distinguished from submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and that President Bush made no such proposals in relation to SLBMs. These missiles are invulnerable to pre-emption and hence do not pose the same risks as ICBMs.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, in order for the Question to be clarified, can the Minister say whether intercontinental ballistic missiles are owned by other people? If they are, does the Minister agree that to keep Trident is a very sensible policy?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are owned by other people. However, we must at all times ensure that the protection of this nation remains credible.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the American Government are retaining multiple warheads on their submarine-launched ballistic missiles but abandoning them in connection with their air-launched missiles? Is that the difference? If that is so, does the Minister agree that, on that argument, there would be no particular case for getting rid of Britain's multiple warheads?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the Americans are retaining both.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, can the noble Earl give some indication as to how flexible the Polaris fleet will be as regards both the number of missiles carried on a submarine and the number of warheads on a missile?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am not certain of the question asked by the noble Lord. However, I can tell him that under the D5 missile system we have said that we shall carry no more than 128 warheads. At the moment under Polaris a missile carries 48 warheads.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, can the Minister give the cost of retaining this particular weapon? Further, can he say whether the decision to retain it is a unilateral one on the part of the British Government or with the understanding of NATO allies?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's second question is that the decision is with the understanding of our NATO allies. As regards his first question, the current cost estimate is £9.863 billion. That is a real reduction of £126 million over the 1990 estimate. The total real reduction since 1982 is now over £1.8 billion.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, do the Government agree that the delivery of these missiles to Britain is something to which the United States is not bound by law or treaty and that their manufacture or not will be decided in accordance with whatever agreement the United States reaches with the Soviet Union? On the other side of the fence, the Soviet Union is rapidly disintegrating. Can the noble Earl say what new thoughts the Government have on these matters?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the point of accepting the D5 missile system is that we will at all times have a commonality agreement or understanding with the United States. That bodes well for the future.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, was the noble Earl suggesting in his answer to me that the total number of warheads carried on the Polaris fleet is negotiable?

The Earl of Arran

No, my Lords, I was not suggesting that the number of warheads carried on Polaris is negotiable because it is a maximum of 48 warheads.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, while attention is inevitably focused on the threat from the East, can my noble friend say whether other nations such as Libya are working on nuclear weapons, which could present a threat in the future?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I think your Lordships will agree that my noble friend is right about that. We live in an extremely uncertain world; hence the reason for retaining Trident and all that goes with it.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, following the question of my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, is not the answer that the President of the United States has announced that he is proposing to scrap all land-based multiple warhead missiles but not submarine-based missiles, which would still carry multiple warheads? Therefore, as my noble friend pointed out, the argument of parity, as it were, on submarine-based missiles falls. Nevertheless, are the Government considering the possibility—I mention it only as a possibility—of having a single warhead per missile on our new Trident fleet?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, my understanding is that the Government are not considering that possibility.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that there appears to be some confusion on this matter that is not confined entirely to the Government Benches? Whereas some people have been talking about what is the present situation, I have been discussing what President Bush has described as his ambition. His ambition is to get rid of all multiple warheads, and not merely those that are not on submarines. At a time when the two largest states are proposing to get rid of ICBMs altogether, is this not a foolish moment for us to start developing our own on the enormous scale that is now proposed? Could not these huge sums of money be much better spent on either some extra regiments or on the National Health Service?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord is fundamentally, totally and utterly incorrect. Adequate conventional and nuclear forces are the bedrock of our security. This Government will ensure that we retain both.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, the Minister said that the change from Polaris to Trident will raise the number of warheads from 48 to 128. Can he describe for us what kind of political situation or war situation would make 128 warheads a greater deterrent than 48 warheads?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the size of our strategic forces is determined by the number of missiles and warheads that we need to overcome anti-missile defences and still present the prospect of damage that no one contemplating an attack on the United Kingdom could consider acceptable. The size of our strategic forces is not determined by the numbers of warheads and missiles that other countries have.

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