HL Deb 26 October 1992 vol 539 cc906-9

3.16 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is now the theoretical military justification for strategic nuclear missiles; and how many of them there are.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, NATO's new strategic concept says: The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance". The United Kingdom's strategic force currently consists of three Polaris submarines, each capable of carrying 16 missiles. Details of the strategic nuclear forces of other nations are provided on page 20 of this year's Statement on the Defence Estimates, Command Paper 1981.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for the completeness of that Answer. However, is he aware that the arguments against the existence of strategic inter-continental missiles are growing and the arguments in favour of the continuation internationally of such missiles are declining? Not only are such views held in Scotland where Trident is being manufactured but they have even penetrated the columns of The Times and the Daily Telegraph. Does he agree that it is time to consider a plan of diversification? If the present tendency continues, people will no longer be able to continue working on Trident. It is necessary for the Government to prepare for the possibility that Trident may have to be put out to grass.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, we have always made it clear that the British nuclear deterrent is based on the minimum deterrent. Conventional weapons alone cannot prevent war, and certainly nuclear weapons can be a force for peace and stability.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that at a time of immense unpredictability in international affairs the test of a relevant defence policy is its ability to meet situations such as the grim events in Yugoslavia rather than situations such as were characteristically foreseen in the days of the cold war? With that in mind, is there not a danger that an overemphasis on strategic nuclear weapons is dangerously unbalanced? Will he therefore indicate what the preconditions would be for Her Majesty's Government to include British weapons in future strategic nuclear arms reduction talks?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am not certain whether the noble Lord was present last week when we discussed a number of matters. I hope that I made it perfectly clear to your Lordships' House that the nuclear deterrent underpinned the breadth of our overall strategic approach in matters of defence. At present it is perfectly clear that we have gone for the minimum possible nuclear deterrent, as I stated to your Lordships a moment ago. We foresee that as being the basis of the underpinning of our nuclear and strategic approach for the foreseeable future.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the noble Viscount realise that the small group of unilateral surrenderors who protested against the arrival of HMS "Vanguard" in the Clyde yesterday are but a small proportion of our population? The great bulk of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are wholly behind a policy of a unilateral deterrent which has kept the peace in Europe for 50 years and ensured the end of what President Reagan called the evil empire.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, in particular because I know that he is well aware of the state of public opinion in Scotland. He represented part of that country with distinction in another place when I was also made a Member. I have grown to accept his judgment of the state of public opinion in that country.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, if our present deterrent is a minimum deterrent, what world events made the Government decide to increase it?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I hope that I have understood the noble Lord's question. It is a minimum deterrent. There is no doubt that not only is it the minimum that we are able to deploy at the moment but, as I have made perfectly clear in parenthesis, we have a declared maximum of 128 warheads per boat. That deterrent will provide a clear underpinning for the whole breadth and balance of our policy in the strategic field.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some Members on this side of the House are delighted that we retain an independent nuclear deterrent because it is not so much a question of what we would do about Yugoslavia but what we would do about Iraq and other countries of that ilk which undoubtedly would build such nuclear weapons if they were allowed?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who has always taken a strong and constructive interest in these issues. He is well aware, as are all your Lordships, that Russia has a remarkable strategic nuclear capability to this day and that the disintegration of the Soviet Union has led to the leakage of a number of sophisticated weapons systems. There is always a strong danger that nuclear proliferation could occur in third world countries, as the noble Lord suggests.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that he will not accept the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, to take the views of The Times and the Telegraph as a reliable guide, because nowadays those journals appear to be somewhat unreliable?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord's experience of Fleet Street is considerably greater than mine and therefore I am happy to take his advice about the reliability or otherwise of the nation's newspapers.

Lord Rea

My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, would it not be more logical to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, an article of which states that nuclear powers should take steps to reduce their nuclear armamentaria?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, we are subscribers to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, as the noble Lord knows. At the same time we are well aware that our present posture in no way contravenes the provisions of that treaty.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, there has been a suggestion that the United States does not intend to continue the development of the Trident missile. Is that true and, if so, what will then happen?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, we are clear and have received assurances that the agreements under which the United States has supplied the Trident missile remain in good order and still stand. I can reassure the noble Lord on that score.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the Minister accept that in this Question we are not discussing general nuclear disarmament but in particular the strategic inter-continental missile, which has a potential for evil greater than that of any preceding empire?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I always listen to the noble Lord's comments with keen attention. However, I find it extremely difficult to support his contention that a strategic policy which has protected this country so effectively during the past 50 years is one based on evil. The events which would follow a nuclear explosion could be described as nothing else but evil, but the noble Lord has failed to distinguish between the explosion of a nuclear weapon and its deterrent effect.