Long-Range Ballistic Missile (Blue Streak)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th April 1960.

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Photo of Mr Aubrey Jones Mr Aubrey Jones , Birmingham, Hall Green 12:00 am, 27th April 1960

I come now to Blue Streak. The quaint characteristic of the debate today has been that not one speaker so far has questioned the wisdom of the Government's decision to cancel Blue Streak. I find myself in a solitary position. It is a difficult and complicated subject on which I have no wish to be dogmatic, and I hope that dogmatism is foreign to my nature. However, I have doubts about the decision, and I have even greater doubts about the reasoning lying behind it and the direction in which the reasoning may take us.

The right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence talked about the rapidly changing technological scene. I will pose a question in relativity. Which is the faster—is it the fleeting landscape outside or the train in which one is sitting? Is it the rapidly changing technological scene outside, or is it our own arrangements and practices which make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to look at any of these subjects with any constancy? This is an important subject to which we should address ourselves. It is a subject more meriting of inquiry than many aspects of the topic about which we have been talking today.

A project such as Blue Streak lasts the greater part of ten years. Any significant technological project these days lasts the greater part of ten years. In the course of ten years, we in this country are likely to have three administrations. Within those administrations we have many Ministers, each Minister bringing to the project, and being expected by public opinion and the Press to bring to the project, a new look.

In addition, judging from past form, within the space of about ten years we in this country are likely to undergo three economic crises. To overcome each economic crisis the Chancellor of the Exchequer is tempted, and succumbs to the temptation, to lop the annual allocation of every long-term project. The wonder is in these circumstances, not that the outside technological scene is changing so rapidly, but that we can ever accomplish anything technologically significant.

Whether we agree or not with the cancellation of Blue Streak, this aspect of the problem is very deserving of our attention. Any Minister inheriting responsibility for a long-term project such as Blue Streak must pay a high regard to the claims of continuity, unless the case for a change is very considerable.

We have heard from my right hon. Friend that the case for the change is not economic, but military. It is the preference for a mobile weapon over a static one. The generalisation that a mobile weapon is better than a static weapon is unexceptional, but is the generalisation applicable to the particular weapon of the deterrent? I have suggested that the weakness of this country, a political democracy geographically vulnerably placed, is that I doubt whether we have the ability to conduct the game of bluff inherent in the deterrent.

If the deterrent weapon of this country, instead of being static, were semi-static like an aircraft or even fully mobile like a submarine, would anyone suggest that our ability to conduct the game of bluff was thereby significantly enhanced? At the very best, the improvement would be marginal. In the case of the airborne missile, the advantage is negligible. In the case of the seaborne missile, namely the Polaris missile carried by a submarine, which has had its fans amongst speakers this afternoon, the theoretical advantage is greater, but this is off-set by a very considerable loss.

The most significant fact facing defence planning in this country is the likely disappearance, for one reason or another, over the next 20 or 25 years of our land bases overseas. This will mean compulsory recourse by this country to a maritime strategy and the increasing assumption by the Navy of the functions for limited operations overseas now performed by the Royal Air Force and the Army. This is a desirable development, but we shall be distracted and diverted from that development if, in addition, we make the Navy the carrier of the deterrent. To my mind, it is militarily prejudicial at this juncture to dangle before the eyes of the Navy that it and not the Air Force might become the carrier of the deterrent.

There is a case for this country making a contribution to the deterrent. There is no case for this country pursuing refinement after refinement of the deterrent; and in so far as we pursue refinements, whether we are given or whether we buy weapons from overseas, so the tension between the deterrent and conventional weapons will increase and not diminish. This aspect of my right hon. Friend's speech today and of the statement made before the Recess disturbs me quite considerably.

The other aspect of the reasoning running behind the decision is that on military grounds Blue Streak is cancelled but on scientific grounds it may be reprieved. A neat distinction is drawn between the military and the scientific. I wonder whether this neat distinction is in keeping with the character of the times and the developments of real significance which are taking place in the world. I would ask hon. and right hon. Members to take their minds back two or three years to the International Geophysical Year. The Russians saw in that Year an opportunity for a superb technological achievement. To encompass that achievement both military and non-military closely co-operated.

The Americans, on the other hand, clung to the traditional distinction of the West that military has nothing to do with non-military and that the International Geophysical Year was purely scientific. The military therefore held aloof, but when they saw the Russians sweeping the field they stepped in. The result was that they lost the most significant round of the cold war.

The truth is that the Russians see a continuous constant struggle in which the military and non-military side of things are closely interwoven. This is the real nature of the cold war. We, on the other hand, with a different tradition, seeing war as the last ditch effort of a country to retain its identity, judge things by military criteria alone. I question the wisdom of this. It is now a truism that the most important engine of technological development in this country is the military. That may be sad, but it is a fact, and I do not think that any substitute will be found for it in this country.

I hope that I am not given to dogmatism, but I venture on a prophecy and say that the very fact of the dispersal of the old Ministry of Supply and the establishment of the Ministry of Science, which is divorced from military science, is calculated to ensure that no alternative to the military programme will ever be found as an engine of technological progress. One of the saddest spectacles on the British scene at the moment is the Minister for Science, aware of the problem, given an impossible mandate, and patently at his wits' end to know what to do about it. This being so, I suggest that when we look at items of the military research and development programme we should look at them not only from a military point of view, which is the only point of view that has been expressed today, but both from the military and technological point of view.

I should like to say a few words about the history of Blue Streak, and, if I may, carry the history further back than it has been carried today. Let us go back to the end of the war. We in this country suffered more than people in any other from the new German rocket weapon, V.2. When the war was over we were the country that did least about it. The Russians went on immediately to develop the V.2 further. The Americans moved into the same field a little later. We deliberately kept out.

I make no reproach, but I think the reason why we kept out still characterises our policy today. We kept out of it because we felt that the defensive rocket was more important than the offensive rocket. In other words, we were mesmerised by the triumph of the Battle of Britain, and I think that this characterises much of our military thinking today. Anyhow, we kept out of it, but ten years later we began to appreciate the significance of what was happening and the Blue Streak project was started.

Three years ago, in 1957, my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Aviation, who was then occupying the Ministry of Defence, called for a review of the entire military development programme and addressed himself to the question whether he should keep in being a supersonic bomber or keep in being Blue Streak. He could have argued exactly what the Minister of Defence is arguing today—that the supersonic bomber equipped with guided bombs of longer and longer range would have given him the mobility which Blue Streak did not give. Indeed, the great controversy which took place at that time between the protagonists of manned aircraft and the missile was precisely about that. Nevertheless, the present Minister of Aviation, then Minister of Defence, decided to cancel the supersonic bomber and retain Blue Streak.

In my judgment, that decision was right and it was right for the reason that, important as mobility was, Blue Streak opened up an entirely new field of technology far transcending in importance the purely military application, a field likely in the course of time to be important civilly as well as militarily. By mastering the technology of this rocket, this country in the course of time would make a contribution befitting its talents in an entirely new sphere. That was the real case for the decision taken in 1957, and in my judgment that case is every bit as valid today as it was three years ago.

There have since then been two developments. The first is the Skybolt, the airborne ballistic missile. I suggest that it has negligible military advantage, and that in the larger technological sense it has no significance at all. The other new development is the submarine-carried solid fuel rocket Polaris. Again I suggest that militarily the adoption by this country of such a project would result in a net loss. Civilly it does not come near the significance of Blue Streak, if only because the solid fuel rocket has a lower range than the liquid fuel rocket, and the liquid fuel rocket is the one that matters for going outside the earth's atmosphere. In my judgment, the case which prevailed in 1957 is every bit as valid today. Nevertheless, the decision is now made. We have now drawn a distinction between military application and scientific value.

We have drawn this distinction, and one of two things may now happen. The first thing that may happen is that Blue Streak may be continued for purely scientific purposes. Even if it is continued for scientific purposes, it will have lost the impetus that is behind it by virtue of the military programme, and having entered this field late for primarily technological reasons we shall still be continuing slowly. In addition, we may be spending money on Skybolt or Polaris. In other words, instead of riding one horse we shall be riding two horses, with the certainty that we shall ride both ineffectively.

The other alternative is that Blue Streak is dropped entirely. In that event the result will be that having in 1957, for the sake of Blue Streak, consciously, willingly, accepted a setback in the field of manned aircraft, in addition in 1960, we shall be walking completely out of the sphere of the rocket, with the certainty that we shall never again be able to re-enter it.

In my judgment, both of these eventualities would be most regrettable. In my view, a more sensible decision—I cannot refrain from adding, a politically more prudent decision—would have been heavily to cut down on the number of Blue Streak missiles to be deployed because, as we heard earlier, the number of missiles is responsible for a very sizable part of the total cost of £500 million, and to cut out even the underground sites, but to have retained it as a project and to have deployed it for military purposes in small numbers, thus uniting the technological and military considerations.

Hon. and right hon. Members may ask, can we afford even this? Can this country afford an expenditure of between £20 million and £25 million over ten years for a project like Blue Streak? Let us remember that when we ask the question, can we afford it, we have in mind not only if there is some physical limit of expenditure beyond which we cannot go but also, are we expending the right way this side of the limit? How do we choose to spend our money this side of the limit?

I cannot refrain from observing that in respect of defence we are maintaining two surface-to-air guided weapons, the two Services, the Army and the Air Force, so far having failed to reconcile their requirements. We are developing a number of weapons to such unique specifications peculiar to ourselves, that I doubt whether they will ever command a single sale abroad. I am thinking of the 45-ton tank, the Lightning interceptor aircraft and the T.S.R. 2 strike reconnaissance aircraft. In the missile age we still maintain quite a sizable Fighter Command, and we have committed the imprudence of bunching all the re-equipment of the Army together at one fell moment instead of spacing it out over time.

That is the defence programme. Outside the defence programme, we are spending far more in agricultural subsidies than on the total military research and development programme. The annual expenditure on the egg subsidy, which has been going on far longer than Blue Streak, is at least 50 per cent. higher than the annual expenditure on Blue Streak. In addition, some of the recent increases in civil expenditure appear to me to have much more to do with shoring up the uneconomic in this country than on introducing the country to novel and significant fields.

It may well be that the two parties in this Chamber, in the competition for votes which goes on between us, may find ourselves driven to spend money on backward-looking things rather than on forward-looking things. I think indeed that we are running this risk, but if we run it we do so with our eyes open. Let us remember that civilisations have flourished not on moral precept; they have flourished and grown strong on technique. It is also my view that this is one of the sounder elements of the Marxist doctrine. This, more than any other age, is a technological age. I cannot believe that this country will continue to exert any influence in the world if it deliberately walks out of one of the most significant technological fields which has been opened up for a long time. I feel that we are perilously close to that, and for that reason I much regret the decision which we are debating today.