Ballistic Missile Defence Systems (Hansard, 16 January 1997)
HL Deb 16 January 1997 vol 577 cc278-80

3.31 p.m.

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the written paper given to the United States periodical Defense News and reported in the Guardian of 13th January constitutes an announcement of a decision on United Kingdom participation in ballistic missile defences and, if so, why this announcement was not first made to Parliament.

Earl Howe

My Lords, no decision has been taken by Her Majesty's Government on our participation in ballistic missile defence systems and no paper was given to Defense News. We are still assessing whether we have a national requirement for ballistic missile defence, taking into account risks posed by ballistic missiles from a national perspective and evaluating the options for responding to these risks.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply, which shows that we are dealing here with a leak and not with a decision which has been taken and withheld, even temporarily, from Parliament. Will the Minister confirm that these matters will be debated before the Government take a decision? Is not that a reasonable thing to ask? Perhaps I may explain that the system in question is a very small tip of a very large iceberg. Am I not right in saying that it is a programme favoured only by the US airforce, and is not even a tri-service proposal in the United States? Am I not right in saying that it consists of putting iodine lasers with a kill range of about 200 nautical miles on Boeing 747s, and then having those planes roam around the world, ready to zap anybody and anything, thus constituting a large new offensive capability?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the particular system mentioned in the article to which the noble Lord's Question refers is one of a number of systems that have been looked at during the course of the pre-feasibility study. We cannot make judgments about any BMD system until we have determined whether or not there is a national requirement. I cannot comment upon the view the United States takes of that particular system. As to the noble Lord's other question, we in the UK are nowhere near reaching a point where an announcement might be made on the way forward, but naturally we shall make an announcement to Parliament as and when there is something to announce.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no reasonable hope or expectation of any effective ballistic missile defence, and it is precisely that question which has led many senior military figures in recent times to take the view, which I have been expressing for some long time, that it is time to get rid of the nuclear weapon?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as to the technical feasibility of any system, again, I have to say that we are not yet at that stage. We need to do a great deal of work before we reach that point. It is of course a pertinent consideration, but the main one is whether there is a gap that needs to be filled.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we are content to wait for the Government's review and the result which no doubt will be reported to Parliament in the course of time? We recognise that this is an important and indeed vital matter which involves a great number of technical and difficult problems which have to be studied in a very clear way.

We are very happy to wait to see what the Government have to say and to make our judgment as and when the Government produce their own conclusions.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I find those remarks extremely helpful. I am grateful to the noble Lord. It is clear that we agree completely on this matter.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, has the Minister a moment to say anything about the possibility of a discussion in Parliament before the Government take their final decision?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I have tried to indicate, it is still early days. Advice has not yet been submitted to Ministers, let alone have any decisions been taken. However, I am sure that the noble Lord, with his interest in these matters, will not be slow in tabling a Motion at an appropriate moment. Of course I am more than happy to correspond with him on this question at appropriate intervals.