HL Deb 17 June 1980 vol 410 cc987-98

3.55 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the permission of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence about ground launched cruise missiles. The Statement is as follows:

"I announced on 13th December last year the NATO Foreign and Defence Ministers' decision to modernise the Alliance's long range theatre nuclear forces; I am now able to advise the House where the 160 ground launched cruise missiles to be deployed in the United Kingdom will be stationed.

"The missiles will be stationed at two existing military establishments, the United States Air Force standby base at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire, and RAF Molesworth, a disused airfield in Cambridgeshire, currently used by the United States Air Force for storage purposes. Greenham Common will be the main operating base for the cruise missile units in the United Kingdom and will house six flights of cruise missiles. Molesworth will house four flights. It is planned that the first units will deploy at Greenham Common by about the end of 1983.

"The factors affecting the decision stemmed from the prime operational need to bring the first missiles into service as soon as possible. The choice had therefore to concentrate on establishments already in defence occupation which had sufficient space available and as many as possible of the basic facilities, in particular adequate accommodation, road communications, and access to training areas and suitable dispersal areas during operations.

"Many different locations for stationing have been very carefully studied, but the two bases chosen proved to be the most suitable in the light of the considerations to which I have just referred.

"The deployment of the ground launched cruise missile force will generate very little aircraft movement at either of the bases, probably no more than a few a month. As to ground movements, it will be necessary from time to time to practice the deployment of the launcher and its support vehicles to dispersed sites away from the base. These exercises will be along pre-planned routes and will take place after consultation with the local authorities concerned. No live missiles or warheads will be carried on exercises at any time and no missile test-flying will take place in this country. The missiles will be stored in purpose-built shelters in conditions that fully meet the United Kingdom's very stringent safety standards—standards that have proved themselves effective since the inception of a nuclear capability in Britain. As part of the security arrangements, we shall be contributing 220 British personnel towards the guard forces for the bases and dispersal deployments.

"I am having an information folder prepared, covering all aspects of the basing of cruise missiles in the United Kingdom. Copies will be placed in the Library and will also be sent to the local authorities in the areas concerned. The information folder will also be available to those members of the public living in the areas of these sites who wish to know more about the reasons underlying these decisions.

"I am notifying the local authorities concerned about the deployment, and their views on the environmental and social aspects of the arrival of the cruise missile units will be taken into account to the fullest possible extent. They will of course be consulted in due course on the detailed building plans.

"The total cost to the United Kingdom of the whole modernisation programme throughout the Alliance will be of the order of £16 million.

"As I made clear in the House on 13th December, the 160 cruise missiles to be based in the United Kingdom are an integral part of a programme to deploy 572 United States missiles in a number of European countries. The Alliance-wide support for the new system and its widely spread deployment throughout Europe is a clear expression of the determination of NATO as a whole to preserve its security. The Soviet Union has developed a large and expanding capability in long-range theatre nuclear forces which directly threatens the whole of Western Europe. In view of the markedly increasing threat we face, the Alliance has decided that it is essential to modernise its own theatre nuclear forces, which are ageing and becoming increasingly vulnerable.

"At the same time, the Government, and the Alliance, remain fully committed to the parallel arms control approach which was agreed in December as part of the modernisation decision. As the House will be aware, the Soviet Union has rejected repeated offers by the United States to negotiate, and has maintained its obviously unacceptable demand that NATO should abandon its modernisation programme as a precondition for negotiation. However, we shall continue to try and persuade the Russians to come to the table and play their part in a genuine negotiation.

"The instability in the world today and the growing military strength of the Warsaw Pact countries require us to be exceptionally vigilant. NATO's unanimous decision on theatre nuclear modernisation was taken for the continuing security of the whole Alliance, and the United Kingdom is determined to play her full part."

That concludes the Statement.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, for repeating that Statement which is, in my view, a Statement of tremendous importance. I know that the House—and, I understand, another place—is divided on this matter, but the decision has been made that this will strengthen NATO, and the Minister gave the details. Has there been any opposition from local authorities on this matter? Local authorities and areas have been named, but I should like to know whether there has been any opposition from them. Further, has there been any opposition from the public? I have seen reports in the press that the majority of people in the areas concerned have supported the idea, although they may change their minds. This is an important aspect and I should like to know the position.

Is the Minister in a position to give any information about whether there was any discussion with our American allies on the question of offset? I will not go into the details of offset, which is an important matter and, after all, these cruise missiles are being built and we are paying for them. I see no reason why the British should be handicapped in any way; this is a sensible method of approach which helps the parent Government financially to a considerable extent.

I was glad to hear the Minister stress the fact that we shall continue to try to get a deal with the Soviet Union. I have argued time and again in defence debates—I argued this only recently—how important it is for the SALT talks to be got going again, otherwise we shall just have an arms race which will get out of hand. I therefore hope we can be assured that the Government really will try to keep the temperature down, especially in relation to matters like the Olympic Games. There has been too much talk of war and aggression, and I believe that we are now coming into another period when we can play an important part. I therefore hope we can be given full assurances on this matter.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating that most important Statement. As noble Lords will be aware, we on these Benches are in favour of the stationing of these missiles on British territory as part of the NATO reply to the threat, constituted by the Soviet SS 20s, which is already upsetting the whole balance of power on which peace in the long run depends. We also share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Peart, that the decision, acceptable though it is, should involve increasing pressure—even greater pressure than that suggested in the Statement—by Her Majesty's Government on the Soviet Government to agree to negotiate on the whole matter of tactical nuclear weapons, long-range or otherwise. This means in practice getting on with SALT 3, and I have never been able to see why SALT 3 should necessarily have to depend on the ratification of SALT 2.

For the rest, I assume—although this does not appear in the Statement—that the missiles when installed will be under joint United Kingdom—United States control; in other words, that they will be launched only with our express consent. I also assume that they will primarily be designed to deter the use by the Russians of the SS 20s; in other words, that they are not designed to be used on a first strike. But I should be grateful if the Minister will confirm that both those assumptions are correct.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords, and I am particularly grateful for the attention they direct to the question of peace negotiations because that is fundamental to our position in this decision. We have said on many occasions that the Alliance offer to negotiate is serious and remains open, and it is up to the Soviet Union to respond. These missiles will not be deployed until 1983 and we believe that this, if anything, will increase the possibility and will increase the pressure on the other side to enter into meaningful negotiations.

So far as offset is concerned, the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Peart, I do not think that really arises. The cost to the United Kingdom is minimal. The cost to the United States is very much greater. We believe that in terms of the enhancement of NATO capability, this represents an exceedingly good bargain. On the question of control, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, 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. On the question of local opposition, the position as I understand it is that no specific local opposition has arisen—because it has not been known exactly where the deployments were going to occur—but such indicators as there have been of local opinion have, on the whole, been quite favourable to the concept of stationing these missiles.


My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that many of us feel that this is the most disastrous Statement that has been made while we have been Members of this House and even of another place? Does it not inevitably mean an intensification in the world of the confrontation of nuclear weapons which could destroy the whole of mankind? Does it not invite, in the case of war, the absolute annihilation of the whole population of this country? Instead of pursuing this disastrous course, will not Her Majesty's Government seek, by the negotiations which are now going on at the Geneva Committee for Disarmament, to secure world agreement on the ending of nuclear weapons and weapons of destruction altogether?


My Lords, the noble Lord and I have engaged in what I can only describe as a dialogue of the deaf on this issue. I do not wish to be discourteous to him, because he is always extraordinarily courteous to me, but the answer to his questions is: No, and I do not agree.


My Lords, does this mean an end in due course to the independent deterrent in this country?


My Lords, this is quite distinct from the decision on the Polaris replacement.


My Lords, the Minister said that 572 cruise missiles would be made available to the NATO Alliance; that 160 of these would he stationed in this country. Can he tell us whether all of the countries of the NATO Alliance have agreed to have these cruise missiles stationed in their territories, and if that is not the case, which countries have refused?


My Lords, the position is that the decision to station the 572 missiles was a unanimous decision of NATO as a whole, but certain countries have not yet agreed to the details of the stationing within their territories. Denmark and Belgium are the most notable examples in this respect.


My Lords, no matter how distasteful it may be, I believe it is necessary that we and our friends be prepared to defend ourselves, and in my view the first prupose of the present Government and of previous Governments, of whatever shade, has been merely to defend ourselves; and we must be able to defend ourselves. I ask the Minister whether he agrees that that is what the Statement is about. Is it not purely a matter of our wanting to be able to defend ourselves? Will the Minister agree that the Statement does not reflect a tendency towards being aggressive?


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. The intent is not an aggressive one. We believe that the NATO Alliance as a whole had fallen seriously behind in regard to theatre nuclear weapons. We believe that this decision to modernise these theatre nuclear weapons, however regrettable it may be, is necessary in order to redress the balance and to reduce the risk. It in no way prejudicies our abiding wish to continue towards the ultimate goal of peace negotiations.


My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that a very large number of people in this country regard this Statement as the best news for our country and for NATO that we have had for a very long time? Does he further agree that the stationing of these weapons in this country will, contrary to what is put about on various sides, in no way increase the risk of nuclear attack on this country, which is already very high indeed?


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble and gallant Lord. That question, coming from so authoritative a source, certainly reinforces the Government's view, and I agree in particular with the last part of what the noble and gallant Lord said. We believe that, if anything, the enhancement of the theatre nuclear weapon capability of NATO as a whole, and of this country in particular, diminishes the chance of a nuclear attack upon this country.


My Lords, will the Government agree that if the Russians were allowed to go on increasing their strength without the strength of the West keeping pace with it, there would be much less likelihood of our being able to have a useful dialogue with them with a view to reaching the kind of agreement on arms limitation which the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, and many others among us are so anxious to see? Will the Government also agree that if a decision about the cruise missile had not been reached, the likelihood of a dialogue with the Russians would have been greatly diminished?


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. What he has said exactly reflects the view of the Government that when it comes to a question of negotiating with the Russians, it is a regrettable fact that it is impossible to negotiate if one is in a position of weakness. We believe that the best chance we have of bringing off successful negotiations—which continues to be our primary aim—is through demonstrating that we are willing to maintain our credibility, if that is what it costs us to do so.


My Lords, I do not think that the noble Minister answered the question of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, as to whether these weapons would ever be used in a first-strike capacity. But whatever the answer to that question may be, is the noble Minister aware that a number of us here believe this measure to be essential to the credibility of NATO, and hold also that the evidence of the last 30 years is that the credibility of NATO is our strongest guarantee of peace?


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the robust words at the end of his remarks. I did attempt to answer the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn. It is difficult to postulate exactly the situation under which any nuclear missiles would be used, but of course we—and the Americans, too—have always said that it is not our intention to indulge in a first strike.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say when SALT talks will take place? Has he any information about this? I think that the vast majority of noble Lords would wish to know whether SALT talks were going on.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord was referring to SALT 3 or to the resumption of the SALT 2 negotiations. I do not think that I have any further information. We are awaiting an indication of interest in resumption, and in fact we are not ourselves actively engaged in these negotiations. It is a matter between the Americans and the Russians.


My Lords, as one who believes that we have to defend ourselves in this way, may I ask the noble Lord whether he can tell us how many miles each of these two sites will be from the nearest well-populated town?


My Lords, I cannot exactly tell the noble Lord that because, apart from anything else, I am not wholly certain as to what he means by his question. One of the sites is near Newbury. The other site is near Huntingdon, in Cambridge. I suppose that the noble Lord would regard those as well-populated towns. I think that the sites are in the order of about 10 miles distant from the respective towns mentioned. Perhaps it would be opportune for me to say that the intention would be in moments of crisis to deploy the missiles out from these bases, for quite a considerable distance—of the order of 50 miles, rather than one or two miles.


My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister has partially answered a number of questions about the defensive qualities of the cruise missile. He has not yet answered the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn: Is the cruise missile anything more than a first-strike weapon? Can it in any circumstances be used as a defensive weapon, or is it to be held by the NATO countries simply as a bargaining tactic? Above all, will the noble Lord please answer directly the question of whether the cruise missile is capable of being used in any capacity other than as a first-strike weapon


Yes, indeed, my Lords. It is described as a theatre nuclear weapon, which means to say that it is being used in a battlefield sense. That postulates that some kind of hostilities have surely started already. I do not know whether I should expand upon that for the noble Lord. It certainly is not primarily a first-strike weapon.


My Lords, I am somewhat shy about asking a question at all on this subject, which is not one in which I am expert, and in any case I believe that all of us feel very strongly that this is the most important, yet also the most dislikeable, matter that we have to talk about, given the basic issues that are presented to us. So I attach an importance to intervening, albeit unskilfully, though none the less expressing agreement with what the Government have decided. I do so because I feel that these matters have now reached a stage where, if one does not take up what is at least by implication an offensive challenge or an offensive threat, then by implication one is beginning to give up the main struggle altogether, and none of us would wish to do that. My other point—

Several noble Lords



I am sorry, my Lords. May I ask the Minister whether he also agrees that when mention is made of too many threats of war, surely there is a very easy answer to the point; namely, for the Russians to move out of Afghanistan?


My Lords, I think the last part of the noble Lord's question is somewhat removed from the Statement, but I would not dissent from what he has said. As far as the ground launched cruise missiles themselves are concerned, they are intended to be in response to an enhanced threat from the other side. We believe that it would he unwise and, indeed, dangerous not to counter an enhancement of the threat from the other side, and this is the intention in the stationing of the ground launched cruise missiles.


My Lords, before I ask my brief question perhaps I may say how much I welcome what my noble friend Lord Hill-Norton has said, that this is indeed the best news for NATO for many years. Having said that, may I ask my noble friend whether he could be a little more specific about his description of the control of this weapon as being single key and under joint control. Specifically, does this mean that the warheads are physically under British control; and, more generally, does it mean that in the final analysis it would be possible for the British Government to take a unilateral decision to use them?


My Lords, as far as the last part of that question is concerned there is no question of the British being in a position to take a unilateral decision to fire the weapons, if that is what I understood my noble friend to ask me. This arrangement has obtained ever since 1952, at the time of the Government under Mr. Attlee; and the arrangement has not been altered although the weapons themselves have been altered. 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. As I have said before, the question of the use of these bases is a matter of joint decision between the United States and the United Kingdom authorities.