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Volume 569: debated on Thursday 22 February 1996

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What targeting arrangements are made for patrolling Trident submarines now that the Soviet Union is no longer the enemy, and whether any nuclear weapon-free countries are targeted.

My Lords, our nuclear missiles are de-targeted and have been since 1994. It is not our practice to comment further on matters of targeting.

My Lords, as that is the case, and the Government are admitting that there is no target, what is the use of patrolling Trident weapons at a cost which can amount to about £50 million? Does the noble Earl agree that it is a completely useless exercise? Why are the Government continuing with this nonsense when the budget of every other Department of State is being cut?

My Lords, I believe the key point is that our deterrent, together with those of our NATO allies, contributes towards maintaining stability in Europe. To perform that role in the current international environment, the weapons do not need to be targeted. Stability is best preserved by maintaining the invulnerability of our strategic deterrent and continuous patrols by our submarines achieve just that.

My Lords, have we not been discussing with the French for a very long time the question of co-operation on patrolling? Can the Minister say what has been achieved?

My Lords, we co-operate with France on a wide range of nuclear issues, including technical matters. For obvious reasons it is not our practice to release details of our co-operation, which involves the national security of both countries. I can tell the noble Lord that the dialogue is continuing.

My Lords, will the noble Earl confirm that Trident has now what is called a sub-strategic role as well as a strategic role? Presumably, there is a difference in the targeting procedure—I am not talking about the targets—when Trident is being strategic and when it is sub-strategic. Will the Minister confirm that and advise the House how that switch is made?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is quite right. The entry into service of HMS "Victorious" means that Trident now provides a continuously available sub-strategic capability. The UK sub-strategic capability is also provided by the RAF with its Tornados armed with WE177 free-fall bombs. The concept of sub-strategic capability has long been a vital part of our and NATO's nuclear doctrine. Without it, a potential adversary could gamble on us not being prepared to use our full strategic capability in response to aggression. The sub-strategic capability removes the risk of him believing that we ourselves will be deterred from using nuclear weapons.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for that explanation, but he did not quite answer the question that I asked. How is targeting procedure affected in a submarine when someone decides that it is acting sub-strategically as opposed to strategically?

My Lords, the way in which the missiles are targeted is something that we do not discuss in public, for obvious reasons. But there is essentially no difference in the way that strategic and sub-strategic missiles are targeted.

My Lords, in order to enlighten my ignorance, can my noble friend tell us the exact difference between sub-strategic and strategic and what does each mean?

My Lords, in a few words, a strategic nuclear strike would be an all-out nuclear attack. A sub-strategic strike would be an attack of a more restricted kind, perhaps against a specific military target. The difference is one of scale and purpose.

My Lords, if the missiles used in a strategic attack and in a sub-strategic attack are different, one must assume that the latter are smaller and of shorter range. Can the Minister say whether they can be used with conventional warheads? If they can, is it really a sensible way to carry a medium or short-range conventional weapon; hiding it deep under the sea in a boat costing hundreds of millions of pounds for use, for instance, in Poland or East Germany?

My Lords, the missiles on board our Trident and Polaris nuclear submarines are all nuclear missiles. There are no conventionally-armed missiles on those boats. Indeed, a decision was taken some little time ago that that should be the case. However, we have decided to arm the Royal Navy with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which will be coming into service during the next few years. But that is very different from the nuclear deterrent, which is the subject of this Question.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Royal Navy is the most efficient fighting service and its ability to transfer from strategic to sub-strategic weapons, or vice versa, is probably instantaneous?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I believe that in the Royal Navy we have a Senior Service of which all of us can be very proud.

The Trident nuclear deterrent represents a superb technical achievement for the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the noble Earl has referred to the Trident submarine as being a contribution towards stability. Is he aware that the versatility now arriving by the sub-strategic role increases instability as far as any non-nuclear country is concerned? Is the noble Earl aware that it is only those countries who possess such weapons who feel the slightest bit stable about it? As far as the rest of the world is concerned, it is a contribution towards an uncertain situation which prevents us from arriving at real peace. Will the Government look at this matter seriously and ask themselves whether they ought not to make a little bit of progress towards a non-nuclear situation?

My Lords, I completely disagree with the noble Lord. As I have explained, a sub-strategic capability essentially fills a gap in the deterrent. Were it not for that capability, a potential enemy could misread our intentions and I believe that that would fatally damage the deterrent effect.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that, given the fact that the Russians have already launched another nuclear submarine and are building a new generation of them, if the noble Lord opposite is so concerned about balance it is perhaps reasonable that we should retain our very modest deterrent?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. As she will know, the UK's nuclear deterrent is a minimum deterrent.