HC Deb 13 June 1980 vol 986 cc1087-96

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooke.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

This Adjournment debate slot was originally allocated by ballot to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), but as soon as the subject in relation to a constituency case in Northern Ireland appeared on the Order Paper, as the right hon. Gentleman said to me "The walls of Jericho fell ", and he withdrew his Adjournment debate. I cannot hope that on this subject of the Ministry of Defence's response to the United States strategic alert on Tuesday 3 June and Friday 6 June, the walls of Jericho will fall as easily as they fell to the right hon. Member for Down, South.

I should like to make it clear to the Minister—and I am grateful to him for his presence on a Friday afternoon—that I approached this matter in a mood of complete sombreness and in the belief that the usual crossfire of questioning in the House of Commons is not appropriate to as complex, serious and difficult an issue as this.

I shall put the questions quietly and precisely. I outlined to the Department that I would go through the questions and answers that were given on a previous occasion. There is one point that causes me to take issue straight away. This is not primarily a matter that concerns the United States of America; it concerns every Government, every political party and everyone on the face of this planet. The stake is so high that if there were any miscalculation we should all end up in a frazzle. I acquit the Secretary of State for Defence of being bland. I am sure that he cares as much as any hon. Member. I dissociate myself from any accusation that he has been complacent.

The Secretary of State for Defence said : the error was detected very rapidly."—[Official Report, 9 June 1980; Vol. 986, c. 27.] It was not. In computer time, three minutes is a very long time. I checked with a computer analyist of 25 years standing, Mr. Philip Vince. He wrote : I do not believe we should be worried so much that errors occur at all, as no system can be made perfectly reliable, as that it took three minutes to detect that they were errors. Three minutes is an enormously long time in the operation of a computer, during which tens or hundreds of millions of instructions can be performed. If this error detection were performed in a few seconds, it would be physically impossible to launch aircraft or missiles during the period of uncertainty. The precautionary chain of events could be started at once but would be halted too soon for the USSR's surveillance organisation to respond I to real aircraft movements it considered hostile although they were only responding to an imagined threat. That is no cause for satisfaction.

The Secretary of State for Defence then said that we were in consultation with the United States authorities. That would provide an opportunity to give an interim report—if not a definitive report—and to do so more quietly than is possible in answer to a parliamentary question or to a private notice question. I asked the Secretary of State what action the American strategic forces in Britain take. I received the answer, "None, Sir." I hope that that answer will be reconsidered.

At one level it is true that American forces in Britain must have done something. As the Minister knows, there is a transatlantic computer link. Something must have been registered on that link. As a Back Bencher, I am entitled to ask what happened. I would understand it if the Minister said that I should not ask such a question, or that he would not answer delicate questions of security, but I am entitled to ask whether the Secretary of State for Defence knew exactly what happened.

The Pentagon announcement was as follows : Some displays of the National Military Command Centre and at SAC HQ indicated multiple missile launches against the United States. Was the Secretary of State for Defence kept fully informed of what happened? I couple that with the question "When did he know and when did the Prime Minister know? "

I refer to the bottom of column 27. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) asked : In this country at least, is not all early warning information shared between the United States and the United Kingdom? The Secretary of State replied : That is so. I ask the Minister a Question that has bothered me and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook), who has made a special study of these matters. Is there an obligation on the Americans to share with the British information that it gleaned from installations outside Britain? The Defence Secretary said that the alert was an entirely defensive procedure. He said : It carries with it no other implication than that the forces are automatically alerted. However, in the Financial Times of 10 June, David Buchanan stated that The Strategic Air Command had been automatically alerted, and activated its B52 bomber force. Presumably the activation of the B52s would at least be known to the Russians. We can be certain that the Russians were watching the airborne command unit. I understand that at least on Tuesday 3 June, if not on Friday 6 June, the airborne command unit was in the air and operational. I do not accuse the Secretary of State of trying to mislead the House. One can be all too glib about these matters. Nevertheless, deep down the term "defensive" is meaningful. We cannot talk about "offensive" and "defensive" in this regard. In my opinion these are meaningless terms.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sal-ford, East (Mr. Allaun) and many others have said that an American mistake could lead to a Russian mistake. Some of us are equally concerned about what goes on on the other side of the world. We say quite bluntly that a Russian mis-take take could lead to an American mistake. However, we understand that 90 per cent. of the offensive system of the Russian submarines is permanently in Murmansk. That gives the impression that there will be a long lead in if they think that there is to be global trouble.

I am bothered by what Schlesinger, the former United States Defence Secretary, called the Pearl Harbour complex. As a result of what happened 40 years ago at Pearl Harbour, it is part of the tradition of the American forces that never again will they be caught on the ground. Therefore, they might be more quick on the draw—I will not say jittery—than is perhaps safe for the rest of us.

I return to the incident of November 1979. Apparently a test tape simulating a nuclear attack was erroneously run through the main defence computer, with the result that 10 nuclear bombers scrambled from United States and Canadian bases and 1,000 Minutemen, with their ICBMs, were put on low-level alert. It was six minutes after the first support signal from the computers that they concluded that it was a mistake.

Six minutes in computer time is a very long time. How can we be sure that that activation of B52s will be seen as defensive? The Secretary of State for Defence said : No one instrument is allowed in any circumstances to be responsible for alerting the forces. That is either factually untrue, or there were mistakes on Tuesday 3 June and Friday 6 June in more than one computer. The forces were alerted.

The hon. Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell) asked : Were press reports accurate in claiming that a faulty computer was indicating that rockets were likely to land on the United States within three minutes ". There was no clear answer about the nature of the fault. If the hon. Member for Horncastle is wrong in his supposition, what was the nature of the faulty advice? In reply to the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer) the Secretary of State for Defence said : That process is already in hand."—[Official Report, 9 June 1980; Vol. 986, c. 27–29.] If information is not forthcoming today, may we be told what timetable the Government have in mind for their consultations with the United States?

That brings me to a crucial problem—the joint decision, and not least the operational timetable in relation to the proposed cruise missiles. These alerts are important, but we must get the facts straight for the debate that will continue for many months in relation to cruise missiles.

On 4 June 1980 an article in The Times said. Bodo, Norway, June 3—... American officials said the missiles to be located in western Europe would be entirely under Washington's control. The cruise missiles will be deployed in batteries of 16 units. The two-day nuclear planning group meeting at Bodo ends tomorrow. Is it to be a matter of joint decision?

The subject of the debate is not Diego Garcia. However, it is becoming more and more clear that, although the exchange of letters signed by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and other senior Ministers of that time in relation to Diego Garcia refers to joint decisions, there was little, if any, consultation. Some of us do not believe in joint decisions, certainly when we are dealing with minutes. It is abundantly clear that the Americans will not allow a dual key system for cruise missiles. These matters should be considered in major debates, possibly between the party leaders. I am not foolish or pompous enough to believe that the Minister on a Friday afternoon can give definitive answers. However, we are entitled to put down markers.

We should not underestimate the serious view taken by Moscow. Tass says that the American military plays dangerously with the destiny of the whole world. I am not suggesting that all the blame should be put on the Americans; I simply say that everyone on this planet is in the most dangerous situation when sick silicon chips in one of the 35 Honey-well-600 computers, forming the worldwide military command and control system inside Cheyenne Mountains, in Colorado, could, in fact, bode ill for everyone on the face of the earth. That is why, in my view, it is essential to get back to the table on SALT II and work furiously and hard towards some kind of strategic arms limitation package III. The issue is the safety of us all, our children and our grandchildren.

2.46 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Barney Hayhoe)

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) is a skilled parliamentarian, but I believe that today he has misused his undoubted talents in pursuing this matter, thought of course I accept and defend his undoubted right to do so. His manner and words have been deceptively calm, and he described his mood as sombre, but the essential message that he has given contained elements of hysteria, paranoia and wild alarmist conjecture.

Let me explain why I make such sharp criticism of the action of the hon. Member, whom I respect and admire as an able parliamentarian. He has sought to blow up this matter out of all proportion. He says that it is vital to the future of the world. I have had checks made in other countries of the Alliance, and if the matters are as described, by the hon. Member, it is remarkable that there has been so little press and parliamentary comment in those countries.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, made it clear on Monday that there is not the slightest danger of war being triggered off as a result of a computer error. I reiterate that stark and simple fact today. To suggest otherwise is a grotesque fantasy, and those Labour Members who seek to give currency and credence to such absurd speculation are either astonishingly naive, grievously irresponsible or acting in a doubtfully motivated way. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that we are all very concerned, but when such events occur they must be seen in proper perspective and not distorted, misrepresented or exaggerated.

Mr. Dalyell rose——

Mr. Hayhoe

No, I shall not give way. The hon. Member raised many questions and I shall try to answer them. The error occurred at the United States facility, and the responsible authority is the United States Government. The British Government bear no direct responsibility, and the information about the error was given to us by the United States.

On 3 June a technical problem at North American Air Defence Command caused inaccurate data to be transmitted suggesting that missiles had been launched against the United States. However, other warning systems showed no such attack. While this situation was being evaluated, as a purely defensive and precautionary measure in acordance with standard procedures, certain United States Strategic Air Command and command and control aircraft were brought to a higher state of readiness. All systems were returned to normal as soon as the evaluation indicated that a computer error had occured.

The entire process of returning to normal was accomplished within three minutes of the false signal being received, so the advice that the hon. Gentleman took from his computer expert, although it is right that three minutes in computer time is a very long time indeed, is not relevant to the point that is being made, because the three minutes covered the evaluation time and the confirmation that the signal was false.

On 6 June the same computer, which had deliberately been left on with special monitoring equipment attached to it in an effort to find the cause of the original error, again gave a similar false signal. Again, no other warning system indicated an attack. It was rapidly determined that there had been a further computer malfunction. The computer concerned has now been taken out of the warning system and the faulty section of that computer has, I understand, been identified. Urgent action is continuing to be taken to deal with this matter.

As part of the normal rigorous verification and checking procedures, the United Kingdom ballistic early warning station at Fylingdales was contacted by the United States authorities on both occasions. Fylingdales was able to confirm to the United States authorities that it had no indication of a possible attack. Because of this, there was no need on either occasion for the Prime Minister or other members of the Cabinet in this country to be contacted. I understand that, similarly, in the United States the President and his senior advisers were not contacted.

As I have explained, as a result of the false signal on 3 June, certain United States aircraft were brought to a higher state of readiness. Some were manned and the engines started, and in the Pacific, one—and only one—command and control aircraft took off. That was the only aircraft that left the ground on 3 June—that one command and control aircraft referred to by the hon. Gentleman. On 6 June, again the engines of some aircraft were started but no aeroplanes were moved.

The hon. Member asked about what happened in the United Kingdom. In neither instance were the United States forces in the United Kingdom affected, and none of our own forces were moved, although we, too, always have forces on standby.

I should explain that the United States missile early warning system is based on a number of sources of information for its data, including satellite sensors and three radar sites, including Fylingdales in North Yorkshire. Data from these various sources are fed into the North American Air Defence Command Headquarters at Colorado Springs. If one part of the system—in the recent case it was the computer at the headquarters—registers an alarm indicating a missile attack, the various other sources of data are immediately checked and the alarm is either verified or shown to be the result of some sort of malfunction.

Obviously, anyone with any experience of these matters—we have been debating today the importance of mechanical engineering, and as a mechanical engineer I know that importance—will know that any electronic or mechanical system devised by man, however well maintained, can develop a fault.

Mr. Dalyell

That is right.

Mr. Hayhoe

The whole business of engineering, and of technology and command control, is to make sure that if malfunctions and faults occur they cause no damage of any kind. In these circumstances cross-checks are made by highly skilled personnel who are regularly practised in error detection. The recent incidents, far from having the alarming effects suggested by the hon. Gentleman, have fully demonstrated the effectiveness of those safety controls and cross-checks.

I again stress that all the actions that we are talking about were purely defensive. The hon. Gentleman sought to suggest otherwise. There is no substance for suggesting that the actions were other than purely defensive. Last Monday an hon. Member talked of American bombers being launched. They were not. The hon. Member said that they were launched to the point of no return, before being recalled when the mistakes were discovered. That is dangerous, alarmist nonsense. It is utterly untrue.

The actions taken were no more than a prudent precaution to protect strategic assets, and the forces concerned had no authority to do other than take self-protective measures. Entirely fresh decisions involving the highest political authority, the United States President himself, would be required before any sort of retaliatory strike was initiated by the United States strategic forces.

The hon. Gentleman also raised points about consultation and joint decision about nuclear weapons, and it is important that I should say something about that. The United States, like the United Kingdom, has committed itself to consult its allies, time and circumstances permitting, before releasing its own weapons for use. As has been made clear many times—I have made it clear more than once in the House and it has been done many times before—the use by United States forces, in an emergency of their bases in the United Kingdom is a matter for joint decision between the two Governments. Without such a joint decision, the bases may not be used.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us about Diego Garcia?

Mr. Hayhoe

I am talking about the position of the bases in the United Kingdom. Without such a joint decision, the bases may not be used. Nothing that has happened in the past week in any way suggests that the United States Government would not fulfil their commitment first to consult their allies in an emergency.

Certain features of the false alerts, highly regrettable as those are, can be regarded as reassuring. The United States forces have demonstrated their high state of readiness. Moreover, the United States authorities have shown their ability to detect quickly errors in the alert system. In other words, the system of checks and verification that I described earlier works.

As for joint decision, it is interesting that points in this connection should be raised in the way that they have been in recent weeks by some Opposition hon. Members. The basic arrangements are absolutely the same as have existed for about 30 years. I suppose that for half that time there were Labour Governments. Indeed, the original basic agreement was negotiated by a former Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, in consultation with the then President of the United States, Harry Truman.

Mr. Dalyell

What about Diego Garcia?

Mr. Hayhoe

One knows only too well from reading press reports that a bitter and deep dispute is raging in the Labour Party over defence and nuclear policy. I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman should pick up the spurious point made in last Wednesday's disgraceful party political broadcast, with its echoes of unilateralism and neutralism. Twenty years ago Hugh Gaitskell was prepared to fight and fight and fight again to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity to the party that he loved. It will be a sorry day for the Labour Party and for the country if similar courage and strength do not ring out from Labour leaders soon. How sad it is that it has been absent from the discussions this week!

2.59 pm
Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

I have a very brief time in which to intervene. The Minister has not responded with his usual clarity and understanding. He has given us an indication that one American bomber took off——

Mr. Hayhoe

It was a command aircraft.

Mr. Douglas

—within the period of three minutes——

The Question having been proposed at half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Three o'clock.