HL Deb 25 May 1993 vol 546 cc165-7

Lord Mayhew asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose to increase the fire power of the strategic nuclear deterrent.

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

My Lords, as my colleagues and I have frequently reaffirmed, the Government remain committed to retaining only the minimum nuclear capability necessary for credible and effective deterrence.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the non-proliferation treaty, which accepts our possession of nuclear weapons, obliges us to disarm nuclear wise? Can it be right therefore for us— unlike the Americans and the Russians who are disarming — to increase the fire power of our deterrent, which I believe the Government have in mind? Can it also be right for the Government to continue to state that they are considering acquiring a new, additional nuclear missile system? Might not the Government be more successful in persuading other countries not to acquire nuclear weapons if they set a better example themselves?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, and I have often talked about sub-strategic capability, which was one of the issues to which he referred. I hope that he will forgive me if I merely refer him to the Answer which I gave a few days ago. I begin to suspect that the noble Lord and I are fundamentally at variance as regards the desirability or otherwise of maintaining a nuclear deterrent. I hope that I am wrong in suspecting that the noble Lord is not in favour of maintaining a nuclear deterrent. I have stated many times that we believe that to be the fundamental underpinning of the safety of our nation and I make no apology for that.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does my noble friend agree moreover that Russia is destroying obsolete nuclear submarines and obsolete long-range missiles and thus is replacing them with new ones?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend whose knowledge of these matters is universally understood. I underline what she said in informing your Lordships that we estimate that the strategic warheads which remain operational are distributed between Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan as follows approximately 7,000 for Russia, 1,500 for the Ukraine, and 1,200 for Kazakhstan. Our plan is for a maximum of about 512 warheads and I am astonished at our own moderation by comparison.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the key measure by which our nuclear capability should be judged is not simply its collective fire power but its capacity at any one moment to have a high assurance of inflicting unacceptable damage and thereby deterring a potential aggressor?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I must reply to the noble and gallant Lord by saying that I could not have put the issue better myself.

Lord Colnbrook

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, referred to the non-proliferation treaty. Will my noble friend indicate how many countries intend to pay the smallest attention to it?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, my noble friend is as able to speculate as I am on matters of that kind. The non-proliferation treaty has noble and essential objectives to which we entirely subscribe. He will realise as well as I that under that treaty we are a registered nuclear power.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, the Minister knows—or at least he should know —that the Government are committed to nuclear disarmament, which he has just repudiated. Does he totally repudiate that as a long-term measure or is he simply saying that the Government will not nuclear disarm tomorrow? Secondly, does the Minister believe that the Government can be taken seriously if they go into the non-proliferation treaty, which is due for further consideration, on the basis of intending to increase their fire power to the extent that he has described? Can the Government be taken seriously? The answer is—

Noble Lords


Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, let the Minister give the answer.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I assume that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, refers in the first part of his question to a complete test ban. He knows as well as I that for a long time Her Majesty's Government's ultimate objective has been to achieve a complete test ban treaty. There is absolutely no point in disarming before that desirable state of affairs is reached, and reached in such a way that a test ban is completely verifiable. Until then it is only prudent for us to stick to our policy of deterrence. I believe that I answered the second part of the noble Lord's question when replying to my noble friend Lord Colnbrook.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, does the Minister's previous answer imply that once a complete test ban has been reached and the necessary verifications have been carried out there will no longer be a need for nuclear deterrence on the part of this or any other country?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, it is perfectly clear that if we reach that state of nirvana we shall he in a different situation from that in which we are today.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is not the trouble that no one can "disinvent" the nuclear bomb and that the technology is readily available? So long as that is true, would it not be sheer folly for us to abolish our own?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am, as always, grateful to my noble and learned friend. I can add nothing to what he said.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the Minister recall an Answer that his right honourable friend the Minister, Mr. Hamilton, made in another place on 18th May when he said: No decision has been made on the number of warheads that will be carried by Trident, but I suspect that it will be more than those that we are carrying on Polaris"?—[Official Report, Commons, 18/5/93; col. 147.] Given that, unlike Polaris, the Trident warheads are independently targeted, even if we deployed the same number of warheads we could hit three times as many targets as we could hit now. Would the Minister care to elucidate on what his right honourable friend said?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is quoting my right honourable friend accurately, as I am sure he is, my right honourable friend seems to have summed up the matter well. He knows as well as I do that our stated number of 512 warheads is a maximum. We keep the position under review so that it is at least consistent with our policy of providing a minimum acceptable deterrent to underpin our entire strategic position.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, the Minister suggested that we on these Benches are against a deterrent on principle. Is he not aware that we have made it clear over and over again that we support a nuclear deterrent while other countries have it but that we do not support increasing the fire power of our deterrent? When he replied today, was he not giving a different picture from that given by the Minister of State, as quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Williams? What I and those on these Benches object to is that the Government are increasing our nuclear capability when the non-proliferation treaty commits us to nuclear disarmament.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, accuses us consistently of increasing our capability. In view of his well— known interest in the sub— strategic capability, I suggest that he look at some of the Answers I have given him during previous exchanges in the past 12 months in which I made it clear that a large number of measures—I shall not weary your Lordships by repeating them—for reducing our nuclear capability in that field have already taken place. Perhaps I may suggest that it would be worth the noble Lord's while to take the question in the round rather than selectively.

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