HL Deb 13 June 1980 vol 410 cc747-50

11.14 a.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they received information that it was thought that the United States was "under missile attack" (as stated in the Guardian on 6th June) and that this mistake was soon found to be due to computer error which was not reproduced on the machines of NATO or of the USSR.


My Lords, the two false strategic alerts last week were caused by errors in a computer in the North American Air Defence Command. As part of the rigorous verification and checking procedures the United Kingdom Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station at Fylingdales was on each occasion contacted at once by the United States authorities. Fylingdales were able to confirm that they had no indication of a possible attack. Military action taken by the United States as a result of the alerts was entirely defensive and designed to safeguard their strategic forces.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I am extremely grateful for that Answer, which clears up some omissions of information in the Statements made in both Houses last Tuesday? Is he also aware that Britain is bearing an overwhelming share in proportion to the cost of the so-called defence of the West? For some reason an announcement was issued to the international press calculated to cause a hundred million duodenal ulcers, and the addition of that piece of information alone might have at least an improving effect. Would he finally just let me ask him whether the Government are becoming concerned about the fact that the whole of the international press is beginning to treat each pronunciamento of President Carter as part of an electoral campaign, and evaluates his statements in terms of prospective attritions or otherwise of votes?


My Lords, so far as the electoral campaigning of President Carter is concerned, that is somewhat wide of the original Question. I do not accept that our contribution to NATO is overwhelming and out of proportion. We believe that we pay our fair share. We like to think that we show a lead to our allies, but I do not think we would claim that our contribution was overwhelming.

So far as publicity is concerned, I believe that the BBC played up the tests in a somewhat irresponsible manner, if I may say so. I also think that it is an interesting fact that, as I believe I am right in saying, the imminence of these tests was announced in Pravda before it was ever announced by the BBC, so nobody should be under any misapprehension that there was any element of lack of information or that there was any element of a scoop or a dramatic new development so far as the tests were concerned.


My Lords, would the Minister correct me if I am wrong? This is on a point of assurance which we find very welcome. Is it the position that an alert may result from a computer error in such a case as this, but that a launch cannot do so?


My Lords, it is certainly true that an alert can arise from a computer error. This is what has happened. I personally find it reassuring—and I hope that this is the point that the noble Lord is getting at—that the checking procedures which took place in this case indicated that the alert was a false alarm. Therefore the whole system operated correctly. I have no doubt that a few people missed a few heartbeats; but I do not think that we should have any fear that aeroplanes took off with aggressive intent as a result of a false alarm.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that apparently the greatest danger to the dear old United States at the moment is the volcanic activity? Apparently she is in greater danger from that than she ever will be from Soviet missiles. Will he take this moment for us to sympathise with the Americans in this moment of their sorrow in a part of America that I have meandered around?


My Lords, I am sure that the House will share with the noble Lord the sympathy that he extends towards the Americans. I recently saw the cloud that arose from the first eruption of this volcano. However, it is a dangerous over-simplification on the part of the noble Lord to say that the United States is under a greater threat from this volcano than potentially from Soviet missiles. As of today, I would agree with him. In the longer term, I fear that the Soviet missile threat to the United States is a very real one.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is widespread scepticism about the assurances given by the Government that there will not be a danger formed by these mistakes? Were we not within three minutes of world war, and cannot a computer mistake be followed in panic by a human mistake? If war occurred, would we have any control of American air forces in this country in those circumstances?


My Lords, when you are dealing with a total of something like 15 minutes it is inevitable, if you are going to have any effective retaliatory or warning system, that if the warning comes up time is going to be very short. The noble Lord is trying to frighten us by talking about "three minutes to nuclear war". In a sense that is true, but we were three minutes into the checking procedure, and the checking procedure said, "relax: this is a false alarm". I find that basically quite reassuring. Nobody can say that it is impossible to get a whole series of errors compounded, including human errors, but any statistician would tell you that the checks and balances built into something of this kind are enormously extensive. I do not know what the odds against a mistake must be, but they must be very, very large indeed.


My Lords, do we know whether computers ever go wrong in the Soviet Union and whether their checking mechanism is reliable?


My Lords, our information is that computers in the Soviet Union are as troublesome, if not more so, than they are in the West. Indeed, I regret to say that I have to remind the noble Lord that there has been criticism in the past regarding the Americans selling computer equipment to the Russians; but I am not going to say it was that computer equipment which has been troublesome.


My Lords,—

The LORD PRESIDENT of the COUNCIL (Lord Soames)

My Lords, I think noble Lords will agree that we should now move on to the next Question.

Several Noble Lords

Order, Order!


My Lords, I am sorry: I apologise to the noble Lord. I suggested that we should move on to the next Question. I feel that this is the wish of the House and I hope that he will accept it.


My Lords, I agree that the rules of the House should be observed, but with equality to each Member.