HC Deb 04 February 1958 vol 581 cc978-82
52. Mr. de Freitas

asked the Prime Minister whether he will now make a full statement on the conditions under which airborne nuclear weapons, whether fused or unfused, are carried over the United Kingdom in Royal Air Force or United States aircraft.

55. Mr. Mason

asked the Prime Minister over which counties Royal Air Force and United States bomber patrols carrying hydrogen bombs regularly fly; to what extent their routes exclude built-up areas; and, because radioactivation of the crashed area cannot clearly be defined, if he will now, with a view to allaying anxiety, make a full statement on this problem and state whether it is Her Majesty's Government's policy to continue these nuclear armed patrols.

Mr. R. A. Butler

I have been asked to reply.

It is necessary for the maintenance of the deterrent that aircraft of the Royal Air Force and United States Air Force should from time to time carry nuclear weapons over the United Kingdom. Such flights take place infrequently and dummy bombs are used whenever possible. When real bombs are carried it is only on special operational exercises and on training exercises which involve moving aircraft from one airfield to another with their weapons.

Bombs carried on such flights are never ready for instantaneous use. As the Prime Minister explained on 12th December last, aircraft carrying nuclear weapons also carry the apparatus for arming them. The process of arming would require an elaborate technical procedure by the crew of the aircraft and in no circumstances could bombs be armed by accident.

As regards danger from a crash of an aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon, I will refer hon. Members to the Answer given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 5th December. The risk from radiation, if any, would be small. Contamination of the ground, if it existed at all, would be limited to the immediate vicinity of the crash and could be dealt with in due course by special military teams. For these reasons, as I said in the House on 28th January, it has not hitherto been considered necessary to add any special instructions relating to aircraft carrying nuclear weapons to the standard instructions issued to local services, such as the police and fire brigades, on action to be taken in relation to crashed aircraft. These standard instructions are kept continually under review and will be added to, and amended if necessary.

As regards United States aircraft operating from bases in this country, the position is as stated by the Prime Minister on 28th November. That is, that in accordance with the understanding reached by Lord Attlee and confirmed afterwards by my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), the operational use of these bases in an emergency would be a matter for joint decision by Her Majesty's Government and the United States Government. It would not be in the interests of this country for me to disclose details of operational procedure.

Mr. de Freitas

Obviously we should have to think over the implications of such a very important matter. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement. Will he not look again at the need for special instructions to Service personnel and civil defence and rescue teams operating in the areas in which these aircraft patrol? These teams feel that such instructions are necessary. Secondly, how can it be that the acting Prime Minister has taken such a long time to give this statement? Surely in such a matter as this the full conditions and knowledge should have been absolutely at his finger tips.

Mr. Butler

The majority of this information has been given either by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister or by myself. What arises is that in question and answer it is difficult to give a comprehensive picture. These are subjects of intense scientific importance, and they are, of course, of great interest to the whole of our fellow-countrymen. Therefore, it is difficult to give a proper picture. If the picture I have given has helped the House, I am gratified to have been able to give it.

Mr. Mason

Is the international situation so grave that it warrants nuclear bomb patrols? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House at least that the R.A.F. bombers will not carry hydrogen bombs on patrol except, possibly, from depot to depot?

Mr. Butler

I do not think I could enlarge upon my statement. As I said, bombs are carried infrequently and only in the circumstances which I have described. It would be wrong, for strategic considerations, to limit these exercises further.

Mr. Mason

Has the right hon. Gentleman received any information from Admiral Strauss of the Atomic Energy Commission in the U.S.A. on the alleged crashes in the U.S.A. of bombers which have been carrying hydrogen bombs, and whether there was any danger from those incidents?

Mr. Butler

Yes, Sir, we have available the maximum amount of information about experience in the United States of America, and, of course, we make use of such experience in framing our own attitude and in giving our own replies.

Mr. Gaitskell

While appreciating the statement made by the acting Prime Minister and agreeing that we shall have to study it carefully, I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman could enlighten us further on one point? If these flights are intended to be a deterrent, in what way can the carrying of dummy bombs be said to serve that purpose, and why should occasional flights act as a deterrent? What is the exact relationship between the carrying of bombs and the deterrent?

Mr. Butler

Without going into too much detail, I should say that the object of carrying bombs, whether real or dummy, must be, as I have said, "on special operational exercises" and there must be obviously a differentiation between the carrying of a dummy and a real bomb because, when an aircraft moves into its airport, it is more likely to be carrying a real bomb than a dummy because the bomb is going with it.

Mr. Bevan

The right hon. Gentleman still leaves us slightly confused. Is it not a fact that we said last week that we quite understand the necessity to carry the bombs in these aeroplanes from base to base? Is that what the right hon. Gentleman means by "an operational flight"? What has that to do with a deterrent?

Mr. Butler

The question of training, of course, comes in. I especially used the language in saying, on special operational exercises and training exercises which involve moving aircraft from one airfield to another. Those two categories, I think, cover the occasions when bombs are carried.

Mr. Grimond

As I think the acting Prime Minister did not use the word "patrol" in the original statement, can he say whether "operational exercises" cover "patrol"?

Mr. Butler

I am taking it that the phrase I have used covers the Prime Minister's reference to training and patrol.

Mr. Bevan

Is it not a fact that that now leaves us where we were at the beginning? Is it not a fact that we started this whole series of interrogations to find whether live bombs were carried on patrol? Are we now to understand that is the case?

Mr. Butler

I have defined training and patrol, which were the words used by my right hon. Friend, in the terms of my Answer today, namely, special operational exercises and on training exercises which involve moving aircraft. That, I think, is an accurate description according to the best information I can obtain.