HL Deb 01 August 1980 vol 412 cc1234-44

1.56 p.m.

Lord KENNET rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will arrange with the United States Government that the cruise missiles to be deployed in this country shall be under the double key system, as earlier generations of United States strategic missiles deployed here have been.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I apologise to the House and to its staff for keeping them, for even a few minutes, at the end of one of these exceptionally busy weeks. I do so for a particular reason. It is that the cruise missiles which are the subject of my Question were announced in December of last year—that is eight months ago—and during all that time the country has not yet received an absolutely clear picture of the command and control arrangements for those missiles. Meanwhile, American politics are going on. They are entering an election period, and a period during which it would be harder for Her Majesty's Government to hold meaningful conversations with the American Administration. Therefore, I thought it would be justifiable to detain the House for a few minutes before the Recess.

I speak as one who, over 15 years, in season and out of season, in this House and in print, has insisted upon the quite special danger of the build-up in Western Russia of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, first the SS 4s and 5s, and now, of course, the far more modern SS 20s. I therefore accept—this is all an introduction—that NATO had to do something. I do not wish to enter into the question whether the relative priorities as between the new weapons deployment, on the one hand, and the new arms control proposition with NATO, on the other hand, were correct. I do not wish to dwell on the question whether the choice of the cruise missile was correct. I accept that all this was reasonable and I do not oppose Government policy in any way in having come to the arrangements they have; I merely seek clarification.

Twenty years ago, the last time we had American strategic nuclear missiles on the soil of Britain—those were the Thor missiles—there was a dual key arrangement; that is to say, it was perfectly clear and fully understood by all that not one of those missiles could be launched in any circumstances whatever without the consent of the British Government—the specific and detailed consent to that launching at that moment. Then there came a long period when there were no American missiles on British soil, but only American bombers carrying American nuclear weapons on British soil. During that period the dual key system gave way to outright American control. We are now back, or we shall be back in two years' time, with the cruise missile, to the stationing on British soil of American nuclear missiles of strategic range. My Question, therefore, concerns whether it is right to continue with the arrangements found appropriate for bombers by Governments of both parties now that we are back in the age of American missiles on our soil.

The distinction is a real one. Any Government can ask—even order—their ally to remove aeroplanes from their airfields within a few minutes. They can simply fly to another country. Not so with missiles. Even the fairly small cruise missile will be mounted on a pretty hefty vehicle, and obviously one cannot fly a cruise missile off the soil of a country to another country with peaceful intent. This is an absurdity. So presumably the removal of cruise missiles would entail those enormous vehicles rumbling along our roads to a port, where there would have to he a ship ready to receive them to take them somewhere else. This is not a thing that could be required of an ally within a few minutes; it might take days. Perhaps the Minister will be able to comment on that aspect. Prima facie, therefore, it would he appropriate to go back to the dual key system with an undoubted British veto on each and every launch, whatever the circumstances.

The Government have returned slightly different answers when quizzed about this at different times and I wish briefly to review them. On 17th June in the House of Commons, Mr. Pym said: On the question of use, I confirm absolutely and have no hesitation in saying that the political decision requires a joint decision by the two Governments. —[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/80; col. 1345.) Mark the phrase "political decision". On the same day, the noble Lord the Minister, who is to reply to this Unstarred Question, said in this House: … these missiles will be under single key, but the arrangements which have obtained for many years will continue and the matter will be subject to a joint decision between the United States and the United Kingdom.—(Official Report, 17/6/80; col. 992.) Note the phrase "the matter". On. the same day, the same noble Lord also said: The actual firing of the missiles could not take place without the necessary political authority under the same arrangement as has obtained ever since 1952". —(Official Report, 17/6/80; col. 998.) Note the words "political authority". On 20th June, the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, again: The use by United States forces of bases in the United Kingdom in an emergency is a matter for joint decision …". —(Official Report, 20/6/80; col. 1314.) Mark the use of the word "bases". On the same day Lord Strathcona again: My Lords, these are single key systems … The United States, like the United Kingdom, have committed themselves to consult with their allies, time and circumstances permitting, before releasing their weapons for use".—(Official Report, 20/6/80; col. 1316.) Mark the phrases "time and circumstances permitting" and "before releasing their weapons for use"; not "releasing their weapons" but "releasing their weapons for use".

On 13th June, Mr. Hayhoe in the House of Commons said: The United States …has committed itself to consult its allies, time and circumstances permitting …".—(Official Report, Commons, 13/6/80; col. 1095.) The same reservation. And most recently, yesterday, in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, answering a Question by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, used two key phrases: My Lords, it has been said many times that the matter of the control of these bases is a question of joint decision between the two Governments …The bases may not be used without such a joint decision".—(Official Report, 31/7/80; col. 1040.)

The question is, precisely what is the arrangement? Could the Government be rather more frank than they have yet been? We know that the use of the bases, in the sense of the stationing of the weapons on the bases, has been the subject of a joint decision. We also know that the cruise missiles will not be fired from those bases; they will be removed from them by road anywhere up to a distance of 50 miles—I quote the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona—and will be fired from elsewhere (from a roadside, a wood or a farm) and not fired from the base. What we are talking about, then, is not the arrangement for the control of the bases but the arrangement for the control of the firing of the missiles.

Since we are a sovereign and democratic state, and since the preservation of our sovereignty is infinitely important to us because of our democracy, I believe it is wrong to allow another sovereign state—even a democracy, even a friendly democracy and even our closest friend in the world—to have untrammelled decision over the launch of weapons, which would of course involve the total destruction of our society, from our territory without our having a veto. I do not believe the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, can tell us we have that veto. My first question, therefore, is whether we have it, and I believe he will have to answer, "No, we do not".

The MINISTER of STATE, MINISTRY of DEFENCE (Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal)

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord to repeat that specific question?


My specific question, my Lords, was: when the American cruise missiles are deployed in Britain, shall we have an undoubted veto in detail over each and every single launching of any such missile from any site whatever in Britain? I believe the noble Lord will not be answering "Yes" to that question.

My second question is based on the fact that it is not too late to seek such a veto. Answering the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, yesterday, the noble Lord gave a reason why we had not yet obtained such a veto. It was that it would cost us some money because we should have to staff, service and possibly even purchase the missiles themselves, as opposed to their warheads, whereas at present we have not purchased them and do not intend to purchase them or service them. This has been negotiated between the Government and the American Administration. Maybe such an arrangement is convenient to the German Government in their relations with the United States and in their perception of how the Soviet Union will react to their relations with the United States. I can therefore understand that it is a suitable arrangement for the Germans.

Is it suitable for us? Is it really the case that this Government have tried to obtain the veto, which I believe they should have, from the Americans and have been told point blank, "You cannot have it unless you buy the missiles outright"? If that has not happened, then I urge on the Government the desirability now—it is not too late by any means; we have two or three years to go—of putting this possibility, in friendly terms and in private, to the American Administration, and of our Government basing themselves in doing so on the arguments which apply in this country where, goodness knows!, it is hard enough to get public consent to defence expenditure without incurring almost wilful difficulties like this.

2.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry that the debate is being held at this time, and I wish that we could have had a proper defence debate, though I am not blaming the Government about this. I have expressed my views to my noble friend. I understand his enthusiasm, and he is perfectly right in doing what he wishes—


My Lords, will my noble friend give way for a moment? I have come into the Chamber specially. This is a vital debate. It is concerned with the whole issue of control. We are giving away some of our sovereignty. I am all for strength, but I am not for provocation of the Russians. I want to know the position. I hope that we shall be able to have a proper debate on this matter later. A Member has the right to call a debate at any moment he wishes, and I should not want in any way to interfere with that right, but I am sorry that the Chamber is almost empty this afternoon for this vital debate.


My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. I hope that we can have a debate on this issue when the House is meeting under different circumstances. We arc near the end of a Session, and unfortunately very few of our colleagues are present. This is an important matter. I tried to use my influence on my noble friend in regard to the debate, but of course I recognise that he has a point. The Question is concerned with the double key system, and whether our sovereignty is affected, and so forth. I do not disagree with my noble friend on this, and I do not think that the Government will. On the other hand, I do not want to get involved in a major defence debate, because we shall come to this later when we come back after the recess, and I should prefer to see that we deploy arguments of another kind.

Apart from that, I consider that my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek is absolutely right, and I take the view that we should be thinking in terms of getting together. There is too much jingoism on each side. I say this because the Government's admirable defence paper contains an historical account of the signing of SALT II in Vienna by President Carter and President Brezhnev. As the paper says, it was an important step in the long process of limiting strategic arms. Following the movement of Soviet into Afghanistan at the end of 1979, however. President Carter asked Senate leaders to delay the ratification debate on the Treaty". I hope that today we can be told what progress has been made in this direction. SALT II was important. It is a complex agreement, as was said in the White Paper; but I believe that it is the only way. We must have détente in the best sense; otherwise both sides will build up arms, including nuclear weapons, when really the world cannot afford it. I am a multilateralist in defence; I believe in defence. I am certain that the main issue is not merely the double key system. Rather, the main issue is whether or not we can use our influence to get talks going on an international level, and I hope that the Government will be able to say something about that.

2.11 p.m.


My Lords, it is easy to understand the anxieties and the concerns that have been expressed here today. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and like other noble Lords, in a sense I regret that this should be the occasion on which we are addressing such an important problem, but of course, we have addressed it before. As the noble Lord said, we addressed it yesterday to some extent in a Starred Question, and it has been referred to on a number of occasions in various debates.

It sounds trite to say this, but the question of the control over any nuclear weapons deployed in this country or in other parts of NATO clearly is a matter of literally the utmost importance. In addressing the question I shall be seeking to allay some of the fears expressed by the noble Lord with regard to the terms upon which United States ground-launched cruise missiles arc based in this country.

The noble Lord asked me certain very specific questions, and I should be in some difficulty if I attempt to examine those questions with a lawyer's microscope and go into some of the semantics involved in them. However, I shall do my best to make clear both the Government's commitment and position. I believe that at various times there have been some misunderstandings and a certain amount of muddle about this issue. I shall have to check the references that the noble Lord mentioned. The noble Lord quoted some references in which he tried to show that the position has changed, and in that regard it is possible that we are not totally comparing like with like, nor addressing the same problem. I hope that that will emerge from what I am going to say in the next few minutes.

I should like to try to put some of this in historical perspective first, because it is relevant and it is important. The deployment to which we are referring at the present time is part of NATO's long-range theatre—and note the word "theatre", my Lords—nuclear force modernisation programme, which was agreed by Alliance Ministers in Brussels last December. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, that he did not invite me to rehearse all the arguments for that modernisation programme. That is not what we are discussing, and I am thankful to him for recognising that this afternoon. Nor, I think, do I need to emphasise the Government's wholehearted commitment to the execution of that programme—and this is important in relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Peart, said in parallel with the arms control discussions with the Soviet Union. We believe that this combined approach is at last showing some signs of being taken serously by the Russians, but that is all I am going to say to the noble Lord, Lord Peart, about the question of SALT discussions, which I think are not strictly speaking relevant to this fairly narrow point which the noble Lord is raising.

The deployment of the ground-launch cruise missile, or GLCM (sometimes called "Glickam", I am sorry to say, but as I might slip into calling it that later I had better admit to it now) will involve 160 missiles in the United Kingdom, and it is part of the alliance-wide defence arrangement. Here is a case of NATO acting in concert in the face of a common threat. The Government's position has been widely debated, both in Parliament and by the press, and by the public at large, most notably since the announcement of the location of the cruise missiles at RAF Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth, and I believe that the programme has widespread support. But any discussion of the question of control has to be placed in its wider context. The deployment to bases here of US forces, both nuclear and conventional, is not, of course, in any sense new. For some 30 years US aircraft and missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons have been based in the United Kingdom. These have included the B29, the B47 and the F111 bombers, and the Thor, Polaris and Poseidon missiles. Successive United States and United Kingdom Governments have made appropriate arrangements to cover the use by the United States of these bases.

Following discussions between Mr. Churchill and Mr. Truman in January 1952, the official communiqué stated—and I quote: … under arrangements made for the common defence, the United States has the use of certain bases in the United Kingdom. We reaffirm the understanding that the use of these bases in an emergency would be a matter for joint decision by Her Majesty's Government and the United States Government in the light of the circumstances at the time". That understanding has comprehended subsequent US basing arrangements in the United Kingdom, including the cruise missiles, which will start to arrive at Greenham Common in 1983.

My Lords, the concept of dual key, to which the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has referred, has sometimes been misinterpreted. However (and I think he said this), correctly understood the term applies to physical means of control over the weapon system; but sometimes commentators have loosely referred to dual-key when in fact they mean dual-control or joint-decision. Only one US nuclear missile system based in the United Kingdom has been governed by a true dual key, and that was the Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile, based here from 1958 to 1963.

A direct comparison between that intermediate-range ballistic missile system and the United States ground-launch cruise missile is misleading because of the important difference that the Thor missiles came into United Kingdom ownership while the ground-launched cruise missiles will remain US-owned and operated. In both cases, the warheads remained under ultimate US control. The Thor missiles were manned and operated by the RAF, although any decision to launch the missiles—and this was made clear in Command Paper 406 published on 22nd February 1958—would have been a matter for joint decisions by the two Governments. The other US nuclear missile systems which have been based in the United Kingdom—the US Polaris boats at Holy Loch—were not operated under the dual-key arrangement although the Truman-Churchill provisions for joint decision still apply. Therefore, I think that the noble Lord will see that he is incorrect in implying (in his original Question, anyway) that earlier US nuclear missiles deployed in this country were all under a dual key system.


My Lords, may I interpose at this point? I may have been correct since the Polaris and Poseidon missiles were not deployed in this country. The noble Lord said that the only US missile system to have been deployed in this country to have been under dual key was Thor. The point is that this is the only one that has ever been deployed on the soil of this country—and it was dual key.


My Lords, I had better check exactly what the noble Lord is saying to me and what I have said to him. If I am wrong, I will write to him. I will grant him this. Clearly, the Polaris and Poseidon missiles are not deployed on the soil of this country, since they are submarine-launched systems, but they are deployed from bases in this country; and that is an important point.

There is another point. All the ground-launched cruise missiles that we arc now discussing are not strategic systems in character. They are intended as a modernisation of the ageing, land-based, long-range theatre nuclear forces which NATO at present deploys—that is, the UK Vulcans and the US F.111s. Their bases, like those for the US F.111s, are already sited in the United Kingdom, and they will be subject to the same arrangements for joint decision by the two Governments. The Government arc wholly satisfied with the arrangements that will govern the use of the ground-launched cruise missiles in an emergency. As the noble Lord rightly said, I sought to explain yesterday to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, that a dual key system would entail the United Kingdom acquiring the cruise missile system—that is, without the warheads—and providing the manpower to operate and maintain them. Dual key procedures already apply to United States warheads intended for use by United Kingdom-owned aircraft and artillery systems based in this country and on the Continent.

The US Government has made it clear to us and to other European countries who are accepting basing of the Pershing II and cruise missiles that they would be willing to sell us missiles for operation on a dual key basis. However, as the Government are satisfied with the current arrangements for control over ground-launched cruise missiles to be based in this country, we do not believe that a dual key system would be a sensible use of our limited defence resources. Unlike our independent strategic and theatre nuclear forces, a United Kingdom dual key would add little to deterrence. The Russians would know that the weapons could not be used without a decision by the United States Government, and their perception of the likelihood of its use would he no different from that under the current arrangements for "joint decision".

I doubt whether I have satisfied the noble Lord. I have done my best. May I try to sum it up by the simple point that, on a dual key basis, we would have to find a lot of money to indulge in the luxury of the pride of ownership, without gaining any greater control over the use of the weapons. That is our position.