HC Deb 10 April 1962 vol 657 cc1139-41
Q10 Mr. Zilliacus

asked the Prime Minister (1) whether, on his forthcoming visit to the United States of America, he will propose to the President that the practice of alerting the Strategic Air Command bases in this country on unilateral United States decisions, whether for technical reasons, as in the case of the moonrise over Ultima Thule or the break-down of communications last November, or for political reasons, as on the eve of the last Summit Conference, should now cease, and a code of conduct adopted consistent with the dual control system to which Great Britain and the United States of America are parties;

(2) what information he received from the President before the United States Strategic Air Command at Omaha issued an all-stations alert last November which applied to United States bases in this country following upon a double failure of communications.

Q12. Mr. Swingler

asked the Prime Minister, in view of the false alarm last November arising from a double failure of communications, if he will discuss with the President of the United States of America proposals covering all bases on British soil to end the system of instant readiness to use nuclear weapons because of the danger of a nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.

The Prime Minister

The recently publicised incident to which the hon. Members' Questions clearly refer arose from some disruption of part of the communications system. United States strategic aircraft, including some stationed in this country, were brought to a more advanced state of readiness as part of a standard procedure. Checking very quickly revealed the cause of the disruption. This very minor incident in no way calls for any change in the satisfactory arrangements which exist between the President and myself and between Strategic Air Command and Bomber Command.

It is of course an essential part of the policy of deterrence that strategic aircraft should be ready to take off at very short notice.

Mr. Zilliacus

Is not it a fact that if there had been a triple instead of a double failure of communications none of us might have been alive today? Is not it a bad principle that military men should decide issues of war or peace on the spur of the moment on purely mechanical indications? Will not the right hon. Gentleman abandon that principle which makes unreal dual control and demand previous consultation before ever resorting to nuclear weapons?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman's premise were correct the dangers he points out might be there. But, of course, this merely brought a certain stage of preparation, and there is no question of going beyond that stage.

Mr. Swingler

Is the Prime Minister attempting to deny the danger of the initiation of war by miscalculation or accident to which he himself has previously referred? In spite of his allegation that this was a minor incident, is not it a fact that this or other incidents might have led to the use, or the initiation of the use, of nuclear weapons without the political leaders having a chance to stop it?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. When I referred to war starting almost by accident I had more in mind a comparison which I sometimes draw between the First World War, which always seemed to me not the result of a definite plot but of the confusion which took place, and the Second World War, which I always think was unavoidable because it was the plot of a wicked man.

Mr. Paget

Is not the alarming thing about this incident not that there was any risk of any intended attack—that did not arise at all—but the fact that the Americans got the warning and Bomber Command did not?

The Prime Minister

Regarding the warning, or the false step, the point of time before it was corrected was so small—under a minute—that I do not think that any danger really arose.

Mr. Paget

But if the allied system is to get a warning Bomber Command ought to have it at the same time as the Americans. It would be very worrying if it did not.

The Prime Minister

I agree, but I think that communications on that part are satisfactory.