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Defence: Trident Replacement Programme

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the consequences for nuclear non-proliferation of proceeding with a Trident replacement programme.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Captain Stephen Healey of the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh; Corporal Michael Thacker of the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh; Private Gregg Stone of the 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment; Lance Corporal James Ashworth of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards; and Corporal Alex Guy of the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan recently. My thoughts are also with the wounded and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation.

I turn to the Question. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the NPT, does not require unilateral disarmament. Maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the current system is fully consistent with our obligations. There is also no evidence or likelihood that others would follow the UK down a unilateralist disarmament route. We will achieve sustainable global nuclear disarmament only through a multilateral process, and the NPT represents the best means currently available for pursuing this.

My Lords, on the very sad news from Afghanistan, I am sure that everyone on this side of the House will wish to endorse the sentiments expressed by the Minister and his condolences to the five families concerned. The premise of my Question is multilateral, not unilateral. It is the Government who are, in practice, trying to ride both horses. Recent researches for the Trident Commission show that the nuclear powers will be spending $1 trillion—$1,000 billion —over the next 10 years. How does the Minister expect the non-nuclear states who have signed the non-proliferation treaty to stick to their side of the deal—the grand bargain—unless the likes of us stick to it too? Secondly, the very well-informed defence correspondent of the Evening Standard reported yesterday a “decision by stealth” to go for full Trident replacement. Why are the people of this country not entitled to a national conversation about the pros and cons of where we should be heading as we approach the so-called “main gate” decision in 2016?

My Lords, we are committed to retaining the minimum credible nuclear deterrent capability necessary to provide effective deterrents, and we keep that under constant review. At the same time, we are working multilaterally for nuclear disarmament and to counter nuclear proliferation. We believe that this is the right balance between our commitment to long-term disarmament and our responsibilities to ensure our national security. I do not accept the noble Lord’s point about stealth. So far as concerns a public debate, a main gate is not expected until about 2016. A decision about how best to consult will be made nearer that time.

My Lords, I join these Benches in the earlier tribute. How seriously is my noble friend’s department studying an alternative to Trident? Where is that study up to? Does he not find it rather strange that the Secretary of State for Defence never seems to refer to that study? In this context, would he like to comment on the recent article in Der Spiegel which indicated that Israel was arming its submarine Cruise capability with nuclear capacity?

My Lords, the purpose of the study is to help the Liberal Democrats to make the case for an alternative to the Trident system, as agreed in the coalition programme for government. I understand that the Cabinet Office is leading the review and it is being overseen by the Minister for the Armed Forces. It will report by the end of the year to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. The Secretary of State did mention it in his UQ in the other place yesterday; it was mentioned several times. On the point about Israel, we are aware of the widespread assumption that Israel possesses nuclear weapons but note that the Israeli Government have refused to confirm this.

My Lords, is it not the case that, in order to be credible, any deterrent has to be simultaneously invulnerable and undetectable? That is clearly not the case with any Cruise system even if it is supersonic—

I am sorry. It is also clearly not the case with any of the extraordinary arrangements that the Liberal party seems to be contemplating at the moment.

My Lords, I do not want to be drawn into an argument with my colleagues but I can say that the first duty of any Government is to ensure the security of their people. The nuclear deterrent provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security, and for the past 42 years the Royal Navy has successfully operated continuous deterrent patrols to ensure that. I pay tribute to the crews and support staff who ensure the continued success of deterrent operations and to the families of all those personnel, many of whom are regularly away from home for long periods.

My Lords, what consideration are the Government giving, during the clearly lengthy period between now and the main gate decision on Trident, to making the nuclear dimension of our security posture less prominent than it was during the Cold War and to pursuing measures to reduce both our alert status and those of other nuclear weapon states?

My Lords, this will be one of the issues that the alternative study overseen by my colleague, the Armed Forces Minister, will be looking at. As I said earlier, the study will report to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister by the end of this year.

My Lords, from the opposition Front Bench I extend sincere condolences from this side to the families and friends of the five brave members of our Armed Forces who lost their lives in Afghanistan recently in the service of our country. We support retaining our independent nuclear deterrent and are strong advocates of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. We believe that multilateral disarmament is the route to securing the collective goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. As has been said, the Government set up a Liberal Democrat review on alternatives to the replacement of the Vanguard class strategic submarines carrying the Trident missile. The Minister has indicated when he expects the review to be published, but can he also confirm that the cost of delaying the final decision on the renewal of the Trident programme until after the next general election, purely for internal coalition government political reasons, has already cost the nation’s taxpayers £1.4 billion?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the shared consensus that the nation’s security should be above party politics. So far as concerns the costs of any delayed decision, there are no costs at all, as the main gate decision will not be taken until 2016.