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Cruise Missiles

Volume 982: debated on Tuesday 15 April 1980

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2.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he can now state the proposed sites for the installation of cruise missiles.

I have nothing to add to the reply I gave the hon. Member on 11 March.

Will the Defence Secretary confirm that United States and NATO nuclear warheads outnumber those of the Soviets by two to one in Europe, that the cruise missiles represent an escalation, as a potential first strike weapon, and that the people of East Anglia are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers that potential sites in East Anglia represent to them and this country? Is he surprised at the growing opposition there?

The United States has proposed the withdrawal of 1,000 warheads. I cannot, without notice, confirm or deny precisely the figures given by the hon. Gentleman. The United States made an offer. It has received a negative response from the Soviet Union. As the cruise missiles will be replacements, rather than additions, it follows that for every cruise missile that is installed, one other warhead will be withdrawn. That seems to me to be a reduction of the total nuclear capability and should be welcomed.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Britain has been a potential nuclear target since the Soviet Union first acquired nuclear weapons in 1950? Will he explain the current rate of siting of SS 20 missiles by the Soviet Union? Is he convinced that the programme is, by and large, completed?

There is no doubt about the speed of the build-up on the other side of the Iron Curtain of the SS 20s and the warheads that go with them. I can confirm that the United Kingdom has been a prime target for a number of decades—since the Second World War. What is important about the modernisation programme for LRTNF is that instead of all the theatre nuclear forces of that range being located within the United Kingdom, they are to be spread more widely throughout the Alliance. That should give some assurance to our people who, naturally, are anxious about this matter.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the patriotism, courage, military knowledge and experience of the late Earl Mountbatten is beyond doubt? Is he aware of the speech which the Earl made in May 1979 about the futility and danger of nuclear weapons?

I am aware of it. I am glad to say that I had an opportunity to talk to Earl Mountbatten upon the subject of that speech, which needs to be read in full.

Has the Secretary of State noted that when Boeing beat General Dynamics for the contract, four out of 10 even of the Boeing missiles went seriously astray? Does he propose to test these missiles on British soil? Will he use the three years before deployment to negotiate Mr. Brezhnev's offer on the SS 20 as against the cruise missile?

Almost any new weapon encounters a certain amount of teething troubles. The weapon chosen is the General Dynamics Tomahawk and not the product of the firm to which the hon. Member referred.

In relation to the siting of the missiles, will my right hon. Friend confirm that 50 miles here or there is irrelevant? Does he agree that people such as the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) who deliberately stir up trouble by traipsing round the countryside miles from their constituencies, make themselves look even more ridiculous than usual, if that is possible? Does my right hon. Friend agreee that, wherever the missiles are sited, we may be sure that the hon. Member for Keighley and his friends will turn up with the relevant Rent-a-Mob?

I am sure that, whatever sites are ultimately selected, it will make no difference to the general vulnerability of the country as a whole. One cannot isolate one region. Obviously there is anxiety and we are considering carefully where the bases should be.

When the Secretary of State made his announcement to the House in December about TNF, he made it clear that the agreement between NATO Ministers involved an important arms control package. We understand the extent to which events in Afghanistan have thrown a shadow over that. However, will the Secretary of State accept that we must try to isolate the question of arms control measures in Europe from other issues? What prospect is there for a real initiative from NATO and what is the timetable?

The United States have made their proposals concerning warheads, to which I have referred. Negotiations continue at Vienna. There is no doubt that the events of last December have cast a cloud over the prospects for arms control. That does not alter our efforts and endeavours to proceed. Unfortunately, at the moment the response from the other side does not amount to worthwhile progress.