HC Deb 17 February 1960 vol 617 cc1289-93
The Secretary of State for Air (Mr. George Ward)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about a ballistic missile early warning station.

Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the United States of America have reached agreement about setting up and operating a ballistic missile early warning station in the United Kingdom. This agreement is in support of the North Atlantic Treaty. The text of the Agreement is available as a White Paper in the Vote Office.

The station will be sited on Government-owned land at Fylingdales Moor, in Yorkshire. It will give early warning of ballistic missile attacks on the United Kingdom. The station will also be the third in a chain giving early warning of ballistic missile attacks on the North American Continent. Thus, the two countries have a community of interest in its erection and operation. In providing additional protection for Western strategic deterrent forces, the station will contribute substantially to the security of the entire N.A.T.O. area.

The station will be commanded and operated by the Royal Air Force. The information it obtains will be available simultaneously to operations centres in the United Kingdom and the United States. The Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, will receive the warning generated by the system; and the United Kingdom will also have access to information provided by the other stations in the chain.

The United States will provide and install the radars for the station, and pay for the communications required to link the station to the rest of the system.

The United Kingdom will provide the land, erect the buildings, and provide communications required to link the station with our own authorities.

For the first five years of operation, the cost of spares for the radars and other technical equipment will be borne by the United States Government, and the cost of the maintenance of this equipment on the site will be borne by the United Kingdom. The responsibility for these costs after the end of this period will be a matter for later review. The other running costs of the station will be borne by the United Kingdom Government.

The capital cost of the station to this country is expected to be about £8 million. The capital cost to the United States is expected to be about £35 million.

The Government greatly regret that the station has to be in part of a National Park. But the topographical, geographical, and the operational criteria governing the choice of site are extremely stringent, and after detailed examination, the Government are satisfied that there is no other suitable site in the whole country. The Fylingdales site comprises about four square miles of land, owned mainly by the War Office and partly by the Minister of Agriculture on behalf of the Forestry Commission, and is within a larger area which has been used by the War Office for military training.

As the site is in a National Park, the Government undertake to demolish the buildings if at any time in the future the station is no longer required. The Air Ministry will discuss with the local authorities, and with the National Parks Commission and other amenity bodies, the detailed siting arrangements and measures to be taken to minimise the effect on the landscape.

Mr. Shinwell

On a point of order. Are you aware, Mr. Speaker, that a reference to this matter is contained in the Defence White Paper which, presumably, will be debated within the course of the next week or two? Do I understand that this statement was necessary this afternoon? If, in the opinion of the Government, it was necessary, are we to be allowed to debate this matter right away, or must we defer consideration of it until the Defence White Paper is presented to the House for debate?

Mr. Speaker

I have not had an opportunity of studying the reference to this matter in the White Paper. I do not think that I am doing anything unusual in allowing a Minister to make a statement if he asks leave to do so. For the rest, my emotions are always committed to the hope that the House will not think that a statement is the right occasion for an unorthodox debate. On the other hand, it would seem in order to allow some questions to be asked about it.

Mr. de Freitas

It is difficult to assess the full implications of this statement without hearing more about it, and we shall probe a great deal deeper during the Air Estimates debate, especially as to cost.

At first sight, is it not uncanny that, once again, a National Park is the only possible site in the whole country? Other technical questions arise. For example, which way will the station look? Will it look one way, like the Singapore defences, or will it look westwards against any possible Atlantic submarine attack? Secondly, will it replace any of our existing stations and thus save money? Thirdly, will it require skilled Royal Air Force manpower to operate it, or is it highly automative? Lastly, is there any radiation danger?

Mr. Ward

May I deal with the last two questions first? The uniformed manpower will amount to about 50 officers and men, some of whom will be United States Air Force personnel, and some Royal Air Force personnel.

There will be some thermal radiation. There is no question of any nuclear radiation. There will be a safety area immediately in front of the radar heads. This accounts in large measure for the four square miles that we need for the station.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the last thing in the world that I wanted to do was to put the station in a National Park, but we searched the whole country, and, as I said, the operational and other criteria were so stringent that this was the only place where we could put it.

Mr. G. Brown

Does the Minister accept the estimate that has been given elsewhere, that the maximum warning that this station will give this country is four minutes? If so, does he think that that will allow us to do more than say "Cheerio chaps" to the other fellows who are listening to us? If, as I understand from the same estimates, it gives 15 minutes warning to the United States, which is significant, does the Minister think that it is proper that we should provide the facilities and also pay one-fifth of the cost of what is really a United States early warning station?

Mr. Ward

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman brought that up because we do not accept four minutes as the maximum figure. We hope to get a good deal more warning than that, in any case. [HON. MEMBERS: "How much?"] We hope to get enough time to get a substantial part of the bomber force into the air.

Mr. Bellenger

Is this to be an isolated station, or, if it is successful in its purpose, is the system to be extended to other areas of the British Isles?

Mr. Ward

I said that this was the third station in a chain of three, the other two being in Alaska and Greenland. This chain will cover most of the North Atlantic Treaty area.

Mr. Grimond

The Minister said in his statement that the chain has been developed to give early warning to the North American Continent. Do we understand from that that the rest of the nations in the Western Alliance are not protected by this chain? Can we be assured that they will be taken into account and will get simultaneous warning with America from the other stations?

Can the Minister say a little more about the radiation danger? Does it mean that people who work or live in that area will be moved? If so, what arrangements are being made?

Mr. Ward

I said that the information from all three stations would be available not only to ourselves, but also to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, nobody lives there.

Mr. Proudfoot

Can my right hon. Friend say what degree of civil employment this will bring in the area?

Mr. Ward

While the site is being built there will be employment for quite a large number of people. The number employed on building will be about 2,000 people, some of whom will be unskilled. Once the site is built employment should be available for 200 to 300 people.

Mr. Shinwell

Are we to understand that international tension has increased recently, and that we apprehend an early attack, which makes this speculative proposition desirable? In view of the fact that, as a result of the French decision, we now have a large number of American bombers situated in this country, apart from air stations which are dominated by the United States, and that we now propose to hand over a large piece of land which might be used for other and more desirable purposes, can the Minister say whether we are to become a colony of the United States?

Mr. Ward

This is a joint project which will benefit both the United States and ourselves—and, indeed, the whole of the Western deterrent.

Sir A. Spearman

Can my right hon. Fiend give a complete assurance that there will be no thermal radiation danger in the area outside the four square miles?

Mr. Ward

There will be no thermal radiation danger at all outside the area of the station.

Mr. Lipton

Would it not have been better to site this warning station somewhere in France or Western Germany, where we are supposed to have allies?

Mr. Ward

It would not, because this is a joint project between the Americans and ourselves, sited subject to extremely stringent operational criteria which have dictated the choice of this position.

Mr. Short

Would the right hon. Gentleman answer one of the questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas), whether the station will be fully automative? Will it be electronically or manually operated? Is the Minister aware that some of us have seen the North American air defence system and believe that if this one is no more effective than that it will be a sheer waste of money?

Mr. Ward

The technicians who will be on the site will be there mainly for the maintenance of the equipment.