HC Deb 24 February 1958 vol 583 cc29-36
The Minister of Defence (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

The House will recall that at the meeting in Bermuda, last March, the Prime Minister and President Eisenhower agreed in principle that certain guided missiles would be made available by the United States for deployment in Britain.

This was followed by technical studies by the military and scientific staffs of the two countries. These studies having now been completed, Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the United States have concluded an Agreement, setting out the arrangements for the supply and deployment of these weapons.

The missiles will be manned and operated by units of the Royal Air Force.

The Agreement provides that the missiles shall not be launched except by a joint positive decision of both Governments.

The nuclear warheads will remain in American custody and will be kept in an unarmed condition so that there can be no risk of a nuclear explosion; and the weapon is designed in such a way that it would be impossible for it to be launched accidentally.

The United States will supply the missiles and specialised equipment at their expense and will also pay for the training of British personnel in America. Britain will meet the cost of providing and constructing the sites and supplying certain items of equipment. The British share of this expenditure is estimated at about £10 million.

The missiles will be deployed in small numbers on dispersed sites, mostly on active or disused R.A.F. airfields. These sites will be mainly in East Anglia, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

What about Scotland?

Mr. Sandys

It would obviously not be in the public interest to disclose the number of missiles, or the number of sites or their precise location.

The text of the Agreement is available as a White Paper in the Vote Office.

Mr. G. Brown

Obviously, the main questions which one would like to ask and the main comments which one would like to make must be reserved until we have seen the White Paper, on which there is to be a debate on Wednesday and Thursday. There are, however, four questions which seem to arise on particular paragraphs of the Minister's statement and which I should like to ask now so that we may have the necessary information before Wednesday.

The third paragraph refers to the missiles being manned and operated by units of the Royal Air Force. Does that mean that no sites will be constructed and established here until the units of the Royal Air Force have been trained in America to operate them? In other words, does it mean that there will be no sites operated by Americans while our men are being trained?

The fourth paragraph refers to the missiles not being launched except by a joint positive decision of both Governments. Will the Minister tell us how this will be done and what the machinery will be? In particular, can he confirm that these sites, unlike the others in Europe about which we are told, will not be under the control of the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, at S.H.A.P.E. Headquarters?

In the fifth paragraph it is stated that the nuclear warheads will remain in American custody". As these missiles, in a sense, do what the present V-bombers do, it means—if this paragraph is correct—that we have a good deal less control over them than we have over our present V-bombers. Can the Minister tell us whether we propose to make our own warheads to fit these missiles, if the McMahon Act is not amended? And if we make our own warheads, shall we then have complete control instead of a shared control over what will be part of our deterrent force?

Finally, there are two different statements in the sixth paragraph which do not seem to match. We read that Britain will meet the cost of providing and constructing the sites and supplying certain items of equipment. Later, we read that the British share of this expenditure is estimated at about £10 million. May I ask the Minister whether there is any intended difference in those two phrases? Does "the British share" mean the entire British costs? Can be give an assurance that the £10 million is the limit of this British investment in American obsolescence?

Mr. Sandys

I will do my best to answer those questions, which cover a wide field.

First, I will answer the question about the £10 million. What is meant is that the British share of the total Anglo-American expenditure will be £10 million—that is to say, the whole of the British capital expenditure involved is estimated at 10 million. On the question about manning, the American Government have not asked for any facilities to deploy missiles of their own or to man missiles in this country. As I said in my statement, the Agreement specifically provides that the missiles will be manned and operated by the Royal Air Force, apart from the question of the custody of the warheads, which, I think, is well understood.

On the question of a joint decision, there will be special arrangements for ensuring that there is rapid consultation, but I do not think that the House will expect me to go into details about that. As far as operational control is concerned, the missiles will be assigned to Bomber Command, whose operational plans, as the White Paper explained, are already being co-ordinated with those of the United States Strategic Air Force. These plans take account of the needs of S.A.C.E.U.R. for support of operations in Europe. We are not planning the development of a British warhead for the Thor rocket. We are concentrating our efforts on developing an all-British rocket of a more advanced type.

Lieut.-Commander Maydon

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on achieving agreement so swiftly in this most difficult problem? Does the Agreement mean that the Americans can deploy and launch missiles under their own control from British territory?

Mr. Sandys

No, Sir. I thought I had made that clear in reply to the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown). The Agreement provides only for the deployment of missiles to be manned and operated by British personnel.

Mr. Shinwell

Can the right hon. Gentleman say how long it will take before these missile bases are constructed and whether it is likely that they will be constructed before the Summit Conference takes place? Is it the intention to furnish the Russians with any further details of our defence arrangements?

Mr. Sandys

The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, asking me for certain further information, but I think that it would probably not be in the public interest for me to give it.

Mr. Chetwynd

Can the Minister say whether the decision to use these bases will be a political or a military decision? In other words, at what level will the final decision be made? Can he say whether it is intended for ever to try to keep these bases secret from the people of this country? Have any consultations been entered into with the local authorities concerned?

Mr. Sandys

That, too, is a three-barrelled question.

The decision will be taken in the same manner as the arrangements for taking decisions under the Attlee-Truman Agreement.

Mr. Hale

What are those?

Mr. Sandys

It will require a joint positive declaration of both Governments—and I stress "Governments", not military commanders.

Where necessary, there will be confidential consultations with the local planning authorities in accordance with the procedure normally adopted for dealing with secret military projects. All I would say about giving information, generally, is that I thought it right to indicate broadly in what areas of the country these sites would be established. Of course, people will see these sites, but they will not know whether they have seen them all. It is a well-established principle of security to let foreign intelligence services work for themselves and not to hand them information on a plate.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

May I ask my right hon. Friend to what extent the other N.A.T.O. Powers have been associated with this Agreement, or informed of it?

Mr. Sandys

The Permanent Council of N.A.T.O. has been fully informed.

Mr. Beswick

The Minister of Defence has said that these sites are to be manned and operated by British personnel. Is it not accurate to say that it will be by permission of the United States? Is it not the case that we are now supplying labour and money for purposes that can be decided only by the United States authorities? Further, the Minister said that the bases are to be on disused or presently-used Royal Air Force stations. Does that mean that these rocket sites are to be in addition to the United States Air Force stations, or is there to be no reduction in the manned bomber forces here as the rocket sites are built up?

Mr. Sandys

These have nothing to do with the American Air Force stations. As I said, they would be—

Mr. Beswick

In addition?

Mr. Sandys

It is a different thing. They will be sited, in most cases, on Royal Air Force—I did not say American, I said Royal Air Force—airfields, either active ones or disused ones.

On the general issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, all I would say is that these missiles will constitute a valuable addition to the Western deterrent power, upon which the peace of the world, pending disarmament, now rests.

Sir J. Smyth

Does my right hon. Friend propose that the rockets should be test-fired in this country?

Mr. Sandys

No, Sir. I am glad that that point has been raised. There is, of course, no question of these rockets being launched in this country, unless war occurs. There is no question of testing them. The agreement specifically provides that they will be tested normally on American testing grounds, but we have made a special provision in the Agreement to make it possible, if it were desirable, to test them also on the Woomera rocket range, in Australia.

Mr. G. Brown

As I understand, the rockets have not been successfully tested. Is it intended to have further testings at Woomera before having the missiles here?

Following up what my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) has said, as the Minister knows, we attach considerable importance to not proceeding physically with the establishment of these bases until the Summit Conference. May I ask the Minister to give an assurance this afternoon that it is not intended to do that thing?

Mr. Sandys

Those are two rather different questions.

As regards the operational effectiveness of the weapons, I would only say that the Thor weapon is in its final stages of development, and that unless we were confident that it would work we would not have made this Agreement.

The right hon. Gentleman's other point was a wider political one, and I would say that until there is an agreement on disarmament the free world must continue to maintain the balance of power. There is absolutely no reason to suppose, particularly on reading in this morning's paper the speech of Mr. Khrushchev, that the Russians are holding up their rocket plans, and I am sure that they would be very surprised if we were to hold up ours.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We will pursue this on Wednesday and Thursday.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the fact that Scotland has been so often mentioned in connection with these rocket sites, could not Scottish Members be allowed to ask a question?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that Scotland was mentioned in the statement at all. I am sure that I would have noticed it if it had been mentioned.

Mr. Hughes

Further to that point of order. In view of the unsatisfactory reply of the Minister, and of your Ruling. Mr. Speaker, I beg to give notice that I will try to raise this matter at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Speaker

That concludes the matter.

Mr. V. Yates

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. One of the most serious statements ever made to this House has been made this afternoon. There are hon. Members on this side who are totally opposed to this Agreement. Why should not they be allowed to ask questions on matters about which the whole of the population is alarmed?

Mr. Speaker

Because this is not the time for debate. That is for Wednesday and Thursday.

Mr. Hale

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I respectfully suggest that one of the difficulties that seriously confront us in this matter is that the moment may come when I rise to put a point of order to you, Sir, and when, because of this Agreement, this House may not exist, and we shall not know from what part of the other world you will be called upon to hear what I have to say.

Mr. Speaker

Of course, I cannot foresee that event, either, but I would ask the hon. Member to look on the bright side of things. In any case, for my own part, I will be free from points of order.

Mr. Dye

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I put it to you that people in East Anglia will not regard this as a laughing matter, but will regard it as one of grave concern, and will be aware that an hon. Member from East Anglia was not allowed to put a question to the Minister.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member has made his point, but the time for East Anglia to protest, if it wants to, is on Wednesday and Thursday.