HC Deb 12 December 1957 vol 579 cc1418-22
45. Mr. A. Henderson

asked the Prime Minister what change in the international situation led to the decision by Her Majesty's Government, in conjunction with the United States Government, to place the United States and Royal Air Force bomber squadrons in the United Kingdom in a state of readiness as from 1st October.

49. Mr. Shinwell

asked the Prime Minister what representations he has received from the United States Government suggesting that the Royal Air Force be placed in a state of readiness in conjunction with the United States bomber force.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

The state of readiness of our air forces and those of the United States are matters for our separate respective Governments, though naturally there is close co-operation between us. No representations have been received in respect of the readiness of our air forces; and Her Majesty's Government have made none to the United States Government.

Naturally it is the aim to continue to improve the state of readiness. The present state of readiness is a manifestation of that aim and is not connected with any change in the international situation.

Mr. Henderson

While recognising the duty of any Government to take steps to ensure that the defence forces are in a reasonable state of efficiency, may I ask the Prime Minister, in view of the apprehensions that have been aroused, whether he will give an assurance to the House that he will take the opportunity of discussing with President Eisenhower and the other N.A.T.O. leaders in Paris the urgent need to enter into direct discussions with the Soviet Government—either diplomatic discussions or Ministerial discussions—with a view to bringing to an end the cold war and the present armaments race which is endangering the peace of the world?

The Prime Minister

That is a very wide question, which arises only rather indirectly from this Question, but I will certainly give the assurance that all these vital matters will be discussed between me and other heads of Government as part of our duty at this forthcoming conference.

Mr. Shinwell

Do we understand from the right hon. Gentleman that the decision to place our bomber force in a state of readiness was on the Government's own volition and that there was no consultation in a highly important matter of this sort?

The Prime Minister

I should have thought that if we have forces, both the American and the British forces have a duty continually to increase their efficiency and all the time to experiment and work towards increasing their state of readiness.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, at any rate on this side of the House, we are delighted to hear that the equipment of the Royal Air Force has improved and that it can now be in an efficient state of readiness?

Mr. Shinwell

So far as I am concerned—I cannot speak for others—obviously I raise no objection to our forces being in a state of readiness. What is the use of having forces if they are not in a state of readiness? I take no exception to that. What I want to know is this. There has been a good deal of talk about co-operation with the United States. This is a new situation in international affairs, and obviously the whole world is concerned. Has there been effective consultation leading to effective co-operation?

The Prime Minister

There are two levels of consultation, surely. There is, of course, close co-operation between the two forces on technical matters. On the much wider political questions which arose from the right hon. Gentleman's Question, that is, of course, a matter of much greater breadth and requires consultation between the heads of Government.

51. Mr. Lewis

asked the Prime Minister on what date he was first officially informed of the fact that United States planes were carrying hydrogen bombs when on security flights around the coast of Great Britain; and when these flights with hydrogen bombs first commenced.

The Prime Minister

As I have previously explained, the carriage of weapons is a normal feature of training and patrol, and I should not expect to be kept informed by the United States Air Force of developments in its programme as new weapons come into service.

Mr. Lewis

From that reply, may I take it that the Press reports that the Prime Minister did not know anything about this matter until after it had been raised in the House of Commons and until after these flights had been carried on for some time, are correct, and that the Prime Minister learned about the matter from Questions in the House?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. The hon. Gentleman should not take anything of that kind for granted. I am not going to be drawn by him into discussing the extent to which defence preparations should be made public.

52. Mrs. Castle

asked the Prime Minister to what extent United States planes carrying hydrogen bombs on patrol in this country are also carrying the apparatus which would enable the hydrogen bombs to become armed in flight.

The Prime Minister

United States aircraft carrying nuclear weapons also carry the apparatus for arming them. I have the assurance of the United States Government that the pilots have specific instructions not to arm weapons until they are directly ordered to do so in order to carry out an operation of war, and that in that event the arming would not take place until the latest moment necessary for the execution of the operation. I must repeat that such an order could be given only after agreement between the two Governments.

Mrs. Castle

Does not that Answer reveal that the Prime Minister gave a misleading impression to the House of Commons when he said there was not really any danger in patrol and training flights because these bombs were not armed? Did he not give the impression that the arming of these bombs was a long and difficult process and is it not now clear that these bombs can be armed in flight in a matter of minutes by remote control from the crew cabin? Does not this mean that the bombs are in fact amiable within a few minutes during patrol flight?

The Prime Minister

I do not think I gave any wrong impression to the House. I did my best to explain an operation. Remembering something of my older experience, I tried to describe the operation by saying that these bombs were in existence but were not fused, thinking of the experience we had with minor weapons which were kept in a certain position until fuses were put into them. This is exactly the same, except that I would say the fuse is a much more complicated and elaborate instrument than the older fuses of which I was thinking. I tried to give and did give an exact description to the House.

56. Mr. Mason

asked the Prime Minister if he will consider, as a first step towards easing world tension and creating the atmosphere for summit talks, the cessation of British bomber patrols which are carrying nuclear weapons.

The Prime Minister

I do not think that world tension would be eased by reducing the state of readiness of our bomber force.

Mr. Mason

is not the Prime Minister in favour of summit talks between East and West, provided that the atmosphere is favourable? Will he not take some positive action in this regard, such as removing this direct and terrific threat of hydrogen bombers armed in the air? Is not the Prime Minister aware that unless positive steps are taken in the direction of peace, these threatening attitudes will grow until war is inevitable?

The Prime Minister

That is another question. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman's personal view is on this matter of the deterrent. I understand that there are Members of the House who are against the policy of the deterrent. I do not think it is a majority of the House or even of the party opposite. If we are in favour of the deterrent and are to rely on the policy of the deterrent, the greater its efficiency the more likely it is to achieve its purpose, which is the prevention of war.

Sir J. Hutchison

Is not the difficulty that if attack came it might well not leave time for bombers on training flights to return to this country to become armed and then carry out their task?