§ 3.3 p.m.
§ Lord Mayhew asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they propose to acquire an airborne nuclear missile system.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)
My Lords, we are continuing to study a range of possible options for the eventual replacement of our WE177 nuclear bombs. No decision has yet been taken.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Can we take it therefore that the Government are not committed to an airborne system and are examining the possibility that Trident might be able to take on a sub-strategic role?
My Lords, certainly the noble Lord can rest assured that all options are being carefully examined. When a decision is reached it will have taken into full account all the relevant factors.
§ Lord Judd
My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the Government are to proceed with such a significant development there must be absolute clarity about the threat which it is intended to meet? Can the Government indicate whether the possibility was costed as part of Options for Change and also enlighten the House about the consultations that have taken place within the NATO alliance to which we are so deeply committed?
My Lords, the nature of deterrence, as the noble Lord well knows, lies at least in part in the uncertainty of any response to any perceived threat. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, in the remarks that he made last week tried to draw attention to what he regarded as unnecessary expenditure. There can be no doubt that any nuclear deterrence must depend on a range of threats and a sub-strategic threat forms part of that. The noble Lord may rest assured that our NATO partners still believe that a sub-strategic deterrent is a desirable part of a deterrent policy.
§ Lord Judd
My Lords, does the Minister really agree that that explanation is satisfactory? Surely this is an immense development in defence. Before embarking upon it we must be certain that there is a real gap which is not being met and not merely the possibility that there might be a gap which is not being met.
My Lords, there is a gap. I draw the noble Lord's attention to the possibility that if one relies only on a strategic deterrent then in the event of a less than strategic threat there might be a strong possibility that a strategic threat may be an over-reaction. Therefore, it must be an advantage to have a sub-strategic response in one's arsenal if one relies on a strategic reply.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, does the Minister recall that, perhaps due to its length, there was no time in last week's debate for him to reply to several questions? Will he be good enough to write to me in reply to a couple of questions which I asked and which appear in cols. 83 and 84 of Hansard? If he will do so and place a copy of his letter in the Library all noble Lords will be greatly enlightened.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for reminding me of what I already know is an obligation. I hope that he will be happy with the reply that I will be sending to him as swiftly as possible.
§ Lord Carver
My Lords, will the Minister say whom it is he wishes to be uncertain in being deterred by this potential weapon?
My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is well known for his extraordinary knowledge and experience in these matters. Perhaps I may divert your Lordships' attention and say that last night I took great pleasure in receiving delivery of his latest publication, which I look forward to reading during the weekend. I remind your Lordships that the Russians have confirmed that they have not retargeted their strategic nuclear forces. Furthermore, I remind the noble Lord that there is a considerable number of potential aggressors worldwide; in particular there are the threats of nuclear proliferation about which all of us have read so much of late.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, the Minister, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, appeared to indicate that there was a NATO requirement for a sub-strategic weapon. That implies that some aggressor might not be deterred by the strategic deterrence of the United States, Britain and France, plus the sub-strategic deterrence of France and the United States, but might be deterred if, in addition, there were a British sub-strategic nuclear deterrent. Does he agree that that is quite absurd?
My Lords, I have been greatly struck by the frequent use which the noble Lord makes of words such as "stupid" and "absurd" during the course of his learned observations. One of the basic assumptions of a deterrence policy is that there should be more than one centre of decision. That 236 matter has been basic to the approach of the United Kingdom in considering nuclear deterrent matters. With the greatest respect to our French allies, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord how happy he would be to rely on the decisions of the Elysee for the defence of this Chamber.
§ Lord Zuckerman
My Lords, in addition to replying to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, will the noble Viscount inform your Lordships' House exactly what is the difference between strategic, sub-strategic and tactical? In asking that question, I hope I shall be allowed to say that the first chief of air staff after the Second World War made one or two addresses to your Lordships' House in which he warned against the attempt to differentiate between tactical and strategic. I have written a certain amount on that subject but I should be grateful to know what strategic and sub-strategic mean.
My Lords, I do not have much time and I am well aware that the noble Lord asks a question to which he already knows the answer. There has already been an enormous decrease in the number of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of this country and of NATO and that is in recognition of the changed circumstances.