HL Deb 28 January 1993 vol 541 cc1361-3

Lord Mayhew asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose to increase the United Kingdom's strategic and sub-strategic nuclear weapons capability.

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

My Lords, the Government remain committed to retaining the minimum nuclear capability necessary for credible and effective deterrence.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the report Options for Change showed plainly that the Government intend to increase the minimum nuclear deterrent and to have in the next few years more warheads of greater range and accuracy? They will perhaps also have an entirely new surface-to-air nuclear weapons system. Can the Minister explain why, in the Government's view, our present and future defence needs call for more nuclear weapons and fewer infantry battalions?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, as concerns the first part of the noble Lord's question, he will know as well as I do that the 512 warheads in the four Trident nuclear submarines have been repeatedly given as a maximum. Her Majesty's Government will continue to review the situation and to make a judgment as to what is the minimum deterrent consistent with assuring the security of the country.

As concerns TASM, which I suspect is what the noble Lord referred to, he is regularly kind enough to ask me for an update on the progress of the review. I have to tell him that my answer today is precisely the same as that I have given him until now.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that his Government, like all other governments, are committed by a United Nations resolution to the ultimate extinction of the nuclear weapon? Whereas other governments continue to pay lip service to that aim, the noble Viscount's Government do not even trouble to do that. Is not the Answer given today quite inconsistent with the Government's commitment to the United Nations resolution?

Viscount Cranborne

No, my Lords, I am sorry to have to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. Our present position is entirely consistent with the terms of the non-proliferation treaty. He is right in saying that the ultimate objective, which has many times been declared by Her Majesty's Government, is to ban all nuclear weapons and nuclear tests. We are far from being able to implement that unilaterally, particularly in view of the increasing danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons in an uncertain world.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, I welcome what my noble friend says. Is he satisfied that there is sufficient co-operation with our French colleagues who also have an independent nuclear deterrent?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for the implications of what he said. Her Majesty's Government are entirely committed to trying to increase co-operation on all levels of defence with the Government of France. There are many instances of progress being made in that direction. We hope that it is an increasing and accelerating trend.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, in the light of the change of administration in the United States of America, are the Government confident that the United States will be prepared or will continue to be prepared to provide the Trident missile?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is as aware as I am that the Trident agreement is a continuation of the original Polaris agreement between the United States Government and Her Majesty's Government. He must be aware that that agreement is registered with the United Nations. So far as we are concerned, there is no question of the agreement being put in question by the new American administration.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend express his gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, for the splendid tribute which the noble Lord paid to the steps which Her Majesty's Government are taking to secure the defences of this country?

Viscount Cranborne

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that the refusal to declare how many missiles will be deployed in each Trident boat has two serious disadvantages? The first is that under START 2 counting rules, when we get into negotiations—as we surely will—we shall be assumed to have eight missiles per boat, whereas under START 2 the United States has agreed to download—if I may use the technical expression—from eight to four missiles on a verifiable basis. Does the Minister accept that if Her Majesty's Government were to give an assurance that we shall have on Trident no more missiles deployed than we have at the moment on Polaris, subject to a continuation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty that would make a serious contribution to the responsible control of arms?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I listen always to the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, with the keenest of interest. All I can say is that we keep the number of missiles under constant review, as I was able to confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew. There is no doubt at all that uncertainty is part of deterrence and that uncertainty serves the purposes of deterrence well at present.

As concerns START 1 and START 2, it is a bilateral agreement between the governments of Russia and the United States, to which we are not a party. I point out to the noble Lord that one of the reasons why we welcome both those treaties and their signature is that it puts an end to the extraordinary escalation in the number of nuclear warheads which were one of the by-products and direct products of the cold war. The policy of Her Majesty's Government has differed significantly from that of both the super powers in that we have always regarded our policy as being to maintain the minimum deterrent rather than to engage in an arms race.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, with respect, the noble Viscount did not answer my second question. Would it not be right for Her Majesty's Government to declare now what the Trident fleet will carry in the way of missiles in order to contribute to the arms control limitation process?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am sorry to be a little blunt with the noble Lord. I answered his question as best I could. The short answer to his supplementary must be no.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that in view of the large number of suspected nuclear missiles throughout the former Soviet Union, we should be grateful that the Government are determined to keep a minimum deterrent for the safety of this country?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Again, pursuing the desirable trend for short answers to pertinent questions, the answer must be yes.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the evidence given yesterday to the Defence Select Committee in another place of severe potential overstretch in our infantry battalions? Does he not agree that the balance between our minimum nuclear capability and our conventional force capability is something that the Government need to keep under careful review in the changing conditions following the end of the cold war? I wonder whether the Government accept that the time has come for a fundamental defence review.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, were I to answer the noble Lord's question in detail regarding the level of overstretch, particularly among infantry battalions, I suspect that your Lordships would feel that I was straying outside the scope of the Question. However, I can agree with the noble Lord's overall proposition. It is right and proper that we keep matters under review. I do not believe that in saying so I differ in any way from what I have said to your Lordships in the past.

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