Tory MPs oppose plans to scrap new missile

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The Independent Online
TORY members of the Commons select committee on defence yesterday called for an inquiry into the threat by the Government to abandon its plan to deploy a new generation of nuclear weapons.

The MPs are alarmed that defence ministers are preparing to drop plans to deploy air-to-surface nuclear missiles (TASMs) to replace free-fall bombs, Britain's last remaining sub-strategic nuclear weapon.

Although it is likely TASMs will be abandoned for strategic defence reasons, they could also be a victim of budget cuts. One senior party source said: 'I think we could easily do without them.'

The cross-party committee on defence is likely to carry out its own inquiry into the plans which could leave Britain without a sub-strategic nuclear force below the submarine-launched Trident nuclear weapons system.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor, the Tory chairman of the select committee, said he would be recommending that TASMs should be included in an overall review of strategic defence. 'I don't see why we can say this nuclear capability is no longer needed, when one looks at the Middle East,' he said.

Michael Colvin, another senior Tory member of the committee, warned that the Tory party would be reluctant to see the abandonment of one line of the nation's nuclear defence capability.

'Trident is the umbrella. If you want a successful deterrent, that is certainly it. But there is the old rule of defence in depth and I don't think you can rely on one method of delivery,' he said.

No announcements have been made about the future of TASM deployments by Britain. The White Paper says: 'We are currently studying possible replacements for the QWE 177 free-fall bomb which will approach the end of its service life around the turn of the century.'

Britain has given up Lance battlefield weapons and nuclear artillery roles; 50 Missile Regiment and 56 Special Weapons Battery Royal Artillery will disband next April. The Government is reducing the number of nuclear-capable aircraft and abandoning nuclear weapons on ships.

The select committee is also likely to reopen the inquiry into the slimming down of the British forces as part of the Options for Change review. The Government was attacked by Labour and the Liberal Democrats for reducing the size of the armed forces without abandoning any of its main defence commitments.

The Government has refused to conduct a fundamental defence review, but Sir Nicholas said: 'I don't think Options for Change was right.'