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Nuclear Weapons: Risks Of Deployment

Volume 432: debated on Wednesday 30 June 1982

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2.40 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the statement in the Labour Party's letter to Mr. Reagan that each new nuclear weapon, wherever deployed, serves only to increase insecurity and instability, and whether they are further aware that this applies to all nuclear weapons and not only to Soviet missiles.

My Lords, the Government do not agree with this statement. Our objective is to achieve stability and security at lower levels of armaments. But we need strong defences, including new weapons if necessary, as long as our potential adversaries devote enormous resources to the means of war.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Labour Party letter, to which I have referred in my Question, also says that in the field of nuclear arms both the United States and the Soviet Union long ago passed the level of destructive power which might be thought necessary to deter an aggression by the other? In these circumstances, will he not think again? Is not the doctrine of parity of overkill a lunatic proposition, whoever utters it?

My Lords, in these circumstances, the Western alliance attaches the greatest importance to the arms control talks which are in progress at the present time.

My Lords, without in any way wishing to criticise my noble friend, does he not think, if he reads the Question carefully, that the answer, Yes, or, No, would have been quite sufficient?

My Lords, it was a Question which by its nature was rhetorical. In line with many other Questions which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, asks me, I thought that there was really no satisfactory Answer.

My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree, and agree strongly, that the talks in Geneva on this subject between the Soviet Union and the United States, in the context of my noble friend's Question, are indeed very important at this time? Would he not also agree that there is a prospect of success, although it is dangerous to make any predictions in this field? Could he tell the House to what extent we are in close touch with the United States' Government in connection with these talks? One would like to feel that we have a certain amount of influence, although we are not ourselves participants in the talks.

My Lords, I share the noble Lord's hope that there should be a real prospect of success in the talks to which I referred. Indeed, the START talks on intercontinental ballistic missiles began yesterday. We are, of course, in close touch with the Government of the United States. But there is one criterion which has to be met if these talks are to succeed. I refer, of course, to the talks across the whole board and, whether we are talking about intercontinental, intermediate range or conventional, the agreements must be genuine, they must be balanced and they must be verifiable.

My Lords, would not the Government agree that, as between the super-powers, any struggle for what is called nuclear superiority is an absurdity? All that is necessary for the purpose of deterrence—and I repeat, for the sole purpose of deterrence—is the assured ability on a second strike to inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary.

My Lords, I think that we are starting to go wide of the Question. The noble Lord is going off into first strike and second strike, which I know is of enormous importance. I would content myself with this answer. The deterrent power of nuclear weapons, much as the West abhors them, has kept the peace of Europe for 37 years.

My Lords, arising from the latter part of the original Answer, is the Minister aware of the mood which is now sweeping America for a freeze in nuclear weapons and which is now endorsed by the Democratic Party there? What is the attitude of the Government to this very hopeful proposal?

My Lords, the whole of the Western alliance, not least, of course, the United States of America, with its great influence and great power, looks to the need to deter and that means having nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. But I repeat that we attach the first importance to balanced and verifiable arms control and, therefore, arms reductions in the talks which are taking place.

My Lords, would the Government look again at their proclaimed unwillingness to have our independent nuclear forces considered in any of these disarmament talks, in view of the fact that in a year or two's time the British and French independent nuclear deterrents, taken together, will amount to no less than one-quarter of the number of warheads of the American nuclear deterrent forces?

My Lords, a durable agreement must be based on the principle of parity between the United States and the Soviet Union, which is clearly breached if third party systems are included on one side.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that one of the qualities of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, which we lost when he left the Front Bench, was that he was capable of dealing with these matters seriously? Will the noble Lord endeavour to address himself to the proposition that overkill is an absurdity, and that either side increasing the amount of overkill necessarily increases instability? Will he address himself to that question?

My Lords, I repeat that it is precisely because of the concern, which is shared throughout the Western world, at the level of armaments that we attach the highest importance to genuine reductions in arms in the talks which are proceeding at the present time. But I remind the noble Lord that deterrence has kept the peace for nearly 40 years. If the noble Lord is in any doubt about the views of the Western alliance, may I just remind him of words which were spoken by the Prime Minister only a week ago to the United Nations. My right honourable friend said:

"As President Roosevelt commented during the last war, we, born to freedom and believing in freedom, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees".