HL Deb 20 June 1980 vol 410 cc1313-6

11.11 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 whether they are satisfied that the British missile early warning system is more reliable than that of the USA; and whether they have power to detain the despatch of missiles from US bases in the United Kingdom in the event of a false alarm.

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

My Lords, we are completely satisfied with the reliability of the ballistic missile early warning station at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire. We are also satisfied that the recent false alarms which occurred at the North American Air Defence Command HQ do not in any way undermine the effectiveness of the ballistic missile early warning system as a whole in detecting and reporting a real threat. The measures taken following an alert by this system are of a precautionary nature, and nuclear weapons could not be released in response to an automatic false alarm.

The use by US forces of bases in the United Kingdom in an emergency is a matter for joint decision between the two Governments in the light of the circumstances at the time.


My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord the Minister for his reply, may I ask whether he remembers that, in answer to an earlier Question, he admitted that a human failure might follow a computer failure, and is he entirely satisfied that our system would prevent that happening? Secondly, if missiles began to fly between the Soviet Union and the United States of America, would not this country be in the first line, leading to terrible destruction, over which we might have no control whatsoever?


My Lords, any mechanical system, however carefully maintained, can develop a fault. Any human system is of course, subject to error. First of all, the people who man these systems are very highly trained and are very high grade people. Secondly, there are many crosschecks between the mechanical and the human part of the system, and we are satisfied that these cross-checks are reliable. Indeed, I really believe that we should be reassured by what has happened, rather than be unduly alarmed. There were errors and those errors were picked up, and I derived some reassurance from that. With regard to the noble Lord's remarks about a mutual exchange of missiles between the Soviet Union and the United States, I do not believe that Great Britain would be very much worse off than the rest of the world. It would be so bad that it is quite unthinkable.


My Lords, does not the noble Lord recall that we were given similar assurances about the line from the USA to Moscow, and a week or two later we were told that a call had come through from the President's wife's hairdresser cancelling an appointment—no doubt useful—on that same private line which could not err and could not be tapped? Assuming that the potential enemy's signalling apparatus gave a false signal by error and this was picked up and correctly transmitted at Fylingdales, would the noble Lord say what would happen then, if the next breakdown occurred at our end?


My Lords, I do not think that presidential hair appointments are very likely to be relevant to the Fylingdales system, although I completely accept the analogy that the noble Lord was trying to draw. We believe that these systems are as idiot-proof and as mechanically non-functional proof as they can be made. They are duplicated and they are very carefully cross-checked. I do not recall the particular failure that the noble Lord has referred to, but even if we had a failure of that kind we believe this system would remain safe.


My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that in view of the several statements in this House that nothing final can happen without conscious, deliberate decision by Governments, questions of this sort are themselves of a false alarmist nature?


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. There is no doubt that authority at the highest political level would be required for any offensive action to be initiated. The very first thing that happens is a series of defensive actions.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the first law of Murphy? Murphy's first law is, "Nothing is foolproof because fools are so damned ingenious".


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, has, I believe, before now cited another version of Murphy's law which says that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. That is totally relevant to this question because these systems are planned on the basis of Murphy's law, that something can go wrong and will go wrong. We assume that that will happen and take the appropriate safeguards.


My Lords, the noble Lord has referred to these missiles being used only by joint decision. He will know that there is a great deal of concern as to what exactly this means. Does it mean that there is a dual key system, or does it mean at the end of the day that if the unthinkable happens the finger on the trigger will be an American finger and not a British finger?


My Lords, these are single key systems, and this is a point that has been made before. 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.


My Lords, technicalities apart—I am not speaking of the computer errors now—did the noble Lord the Minister hear on the wireless as recently as last Tuesday that an observer who went to have a look at the points where weapons are to be fired in America, the control points, found they were manned by very junior officers? I think this is rather disquieting, when the noble Lord says that he is satisfied that they are very highly trained operators. The rank of lieutenant is rather low.


My Lords, it is not for me to speak for the United States services, but the point we are addressing ourselves to here is the possibility of computer errors at the centre, and it is there that the highly trained staff are concentrated.