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Trident Missile

Volume 78: debated on Tuesday 30 April 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence what was the cost of the Trident missile programme when it was first authorised; and what percentage this represents of the present estimated cost.

The cost of Trident I—the C4 system—as first announced in July 1980 was estimated at between £4·5 billion and £5 billion at July 1980 prices. In 1982, however, the Government decided to adopt instead the Trident II—the D5 system—the estimated cost of which at September 1981 prices and at an exchange rate of £1 to $1·78 was announced at £7·5 billion. Statistically this figure is 81 per cent. of the latest estimate of £9,285 million announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in January. However, if the effects of inflation and movements in the exchange rate are set aside, the latest estimate is in fact less than that given in 1982.

Do not many military experts agree that Trident is unsuited to our needs and that it could impede the arms control talks? In view of the rocketing costs to which the Minister has admitted, would it not be better to scrap Trident now, when only a small percentage of the envisaged overall cost has been spent?

The Government want to ensure that the country's defence and peace are maintained. We are quite certain that it is right not only that we should have a nuclear deterrent but that we should have an independent nuclear deterrent. The Trident system is the most effective that we are likely to be able to command, and it can do the job effectively. As has been made clear on many occasions, as a percentage of the total defence budget it remains a small element. For instance, it costs less than the Tornado programme.

In the face of criticisms by CND activists on the Liberal Benches and a rag-bag of pacifists and unilateralists on the other Opposition Benches, will my hon. Friend give a clear assurance that the Government are prepared to will the means effectively to ensure this country's defence?

I can give that categorical assurance. We shall do so both through the provision of conventional defence and the nuclear deterrent.

Is not the only conceivable circumstance in which Trident might be used if Britain were threatened and America refused to come to our assistance? Does the Minister think that likely?

One can envisage certain situations in which Britain might need to make use of a nuclear deterrent.

Does the Minister accept that to call the possession of nuclear weapons a defence is an illusion? Does he agree that the possession of nuclear weapons makes it more likely that we will be attacked by nuclear weapons? Even at this late stage, will the Minister cancel the Trident programme so that we can meet our commitments for a conventional defence force? Does he agree that that is what the people want?

I am convinced that the absence of a deterrent would make war more likely, not less likely.

I strongly support the Government's policy on Trident. However, does my hon. Friend recognise that there could be a consequence for the Trident programme if, as I hope, the strategic defence initiative moves forward? At some stage, will my hon. Friend consider publishing documents to enable the House to judge the relativities of the SDI programme and Trident?

I think that my hon. Friend is right. This has to be examined. But he must remember that the strategic defence initiative programme is in its infancy, the research is likely to take one or two decades at least, and in the meantime it will be necessary to continue with the deterrent strategy.

Will the Minister now give us some details of the rate of exchange at which the current calculation has been made, and the difference in cost between the rate of exchange that he gave for the D5 and the present position? Will he concede that the real cost of Trident is the end of the British surface naval fleet as an effective force within NATO?

The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is nonsense. In reply to his specific question, as I think he knows, the exchange rate which was used in my right hon. Friend's latest estimate was $1·38. At that time it was pooh-poohed because the exchange rate was standing at something like $1·10 to the pound. The hon. Gentleman and the House will have noticed that there has been considerable movement since then.

As the Minister well knows, the pound is now standing at $1·21, which of course means that Trident is even more expensive than the latest estimates. Can he return to the question that was asked by his hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Proctor) and now give, since he failed to give it before, a clear assurance to the House that the purchase of Trident will not mean any cuts in the surface fleet or any inhibition on the replacement of existing warships?

The Government's policy in regard to surface ships has been made clear. It will be even clearer when the Statement on the Defence Estimates is published tomorrow. What the right hon. Gentleman must realise is that, thanks to this Government, expenditure on defence has increased by one fifth in real terms so that the total resources available to defence are one fifth greater than they were in 1979, and, therefore, there are more resources available for spending on conventional weapons, in addition to that which will be expended on the nuclear deterrent.