HL Deb 21 December 1982 vol 437 cc1042-51

10.35 p.m.

Lord Brockway rose to ask her Majesty's Government on what conditions they have given permission to the Government of the USA to establish in this country an alternative command headquarters for their military forces in Europe.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, except for the staff of the House, for whose services we are all so grateful, I make no apology for asking this Question even at this late hour. I think that the apology is necessary from the Government Benches. When I sought to put down a Private Notice Question on this subject, I was told that it would depend upon a decision reached in another place where a similar request was being made. That request was refused on the ground that there would be a debate in another place where this subject could be raised. But in this House no debate has been allowed. With the help of the Opposition Front Bench, the only possibility was an Unstarred Question tonight. I think it disgraceful that, on such an important issue as this, the only possibility of expressing an opinion is at this late hour in a House with a small attendance.

I doubt very much whether we should have known of this decision to allow an American command centre in reserve to be established in this country had it not been for the report in the Guardian. I regard the Government as very much at fault in that they kept us in the dark on this matter when discussions began last spring. There are three consequences of this decision. The first relates to High Wycombe itself. It is much more than a local issue. High Wycombe has already become the military headquarters in Great Britain. It is the headquarters of the RAF in Britain. It is the headquarters of the American bases in Britain. There has been built in the Chilterns itself the deep and expansive bunker for VIPs. There is in High Wycombe the reserve NATO headquarters for Europe except for West Germany.

Now, in addition to these military establishments, there is the proposal that the alternative American command should be constructed in High Wycombe. If a war occurred, a survey has already indicated that High Wycombe would be the most dangerous place in England—second only to Strathclyde where the Polaris submarines are based. Now I think that in the event of war High Wycombe will become even more dangerous than Strathclyde.

To that I want to add one incidental point: the Prime Minister, in a Written Answer in another place, emphasised that the American command centre was American and not a NATO establishment. But, as I have indicated already, in High Wycombe itself there is a NATO establishment.

The second consequence of this decision is one which refers particularly to the question I have put about the conditions in which the American command centre will be allowed in this country. So far we have had repeated assurances that American action could not be taken in the event of war without the consent of the British Government, and that has applied to the many American bases in this country. It is impossible to make that demand for prior consultation when the new command centre in High Wycombe is to be a command centre for the whole of Europe. I should like the Government to answer the question whether prior British consultation about the use of that command centre still stands in view of importance for the whole of Europe for the American forces.

The third point I want to make is this: this country is now becoming a military colony of the United States of America. We have the American bases scattered all over the country. Now we are to have even the alternative American command centre for the whole of Europe on our territory; and the position is being reached that any decision in wartime which would be taken would not be a British but an American decision. The issue is even more than an issue of war and peace: it has become an issue as to whether our own people are to have their destiny in their hands.

I want to put it to the Government that it is very unwise to proceed with these proposals when opinion polls have indicated that a large majority of our people are opposed to the presence of American bases here at all and when it is very likely indeed that the next Government of this country will abolish those American bases. That must refer to the proposed American command as well. The vast expenditure which is resulting from these proposals may be entirely wasted by a decision of a forthcoming Government. I put it to the Government that it is unwise, when we are approaching a general election, to make decisions of this kind.

It has been suggested in a High Wycombe local newspaper that many of the people of High Wycombe are not concerned because they do not believe that a nuclear war will take place. If it does not take place, it will be due to the strength of the Peace Movement in this country, in Western Europe and now in America, as well as in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. That movement has now become so strong that 138 elected local and regional authorities in this country have declared themselves nuclear weapon-free zones.

It is so strong in Western Europe that the Governments both of Belgium and of Holland have to reject NATO's demand that cruise missiles should be established there. It is so strong in Western Germany that it was recognised both in Bonn and in Washington that its strength was the reason why the German Chancellor had to fly to President Reagan, to convince him that he must begin talks with the Soviet Union. It is so strong in America now that the Democratic Party, which is likely to be responsible for the Adminstration in America after the next election, has declared for a nuclear weapons freeze.

For all these reasons, it is deplorable that the Government have proceeded to give permission for the American command centre for Europe to be stationed in this country—a decision which I believe all of us will regret.

10.46 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I should like to support what my noble friend has so eloquently said. His Question asks on what conditions the Government have given permission to the Government of the United States to have in this country an alternative command headquarters. I hope that we shall be hearing from the noble Viscount what those conditions are. So far, however, there is one condition that the Americans, we know, have not conceded, and that is the condition that the Prime Minister asked Mr. Schultz to concede recently, when she suggested to him, if newspaper reports are to be believed, that there should be established a dual key operational control over American nuclear weapons in this country. Again, if newspaper reports are to be believed, Mr. Schultz went away without having made that concession. Whether or not he said that he would put it to the American president, we do not know.

What we do know, however, at the moment, is that there is no operational control, so far as the British forces are concerned, over American nuclear weapons. This applies equally whether the American nuclear weapons are in American hands or whether they are committed to NATO. At the present moment, there is absolutely no British operational control, shared control or dual key control, as it is called, over American weapons deployed in this country. This is true of the NATO committed weapons and it is equally true of those which are under American sole control.

So we have the extraordinary position that it would be possible for the United States forces in this country to launch a nuclear war against the Soviet Union, without any parliamentary consent whatsoever. It could happen without our knowledge and completely without our consent. We have completely abrogated our national control over our own fate. In reply to this the Government will say, "Oh, yes, but we do have political consultation"—and, of course, that is true. But political consultation without operational control is no good at all in time of emergency, and it is absolutely essential that we re-establish operational control over our own fate in the dangerous times in which we exist.

I hope, therefore, that in his reply the noble Viscount will not be totally negative. I hope he will agree that the question has been discussed between the Prime Minister and Mr. Schultz; and that every sane person in this country, every patriotic person in this country, must believe that it is right for us to exercise control over our own fate and not to have some nebulous proposition of political consultation. In wartime, as anybody who knows anything about the matter appreciates, there is no substitute for operational control. You must have your man with his finger on the key, with his agreement, so that this nation of ours cannot be committed to nuclear suicide at the behest of someone 1,000 miles away, in Washington.

For this reason, I hope that the noble Viscount will not, as I have said, be entirely negative in his response. It is all the more necessary because of the changes which have recently taken place in the operational nature of nuclear warfare. While we rely purely on a deterrent strategy, it seems to me that possibly one can say that these weapons will never be used, but with the American adoption of the counterforce strategy, with the gradual improvement of the accuracy of weapons, with the notion of being able to take out the enemy's weapons, the possibility of a first strike looms on the horizon. Once we move into the position of a first strike—and the NATO forces have refused to repudiate the first strike position—our peril becomes enhanced. We are therefore not static; we are moving into a situation of greater peril all the time. Therefore it becomes all the more necessary that we should exercise control over our own fate.

For that reason, the Question which my noble friend has raised about the moving of an American reserve control area into this country—whether this be a new development which has only just emerged or whether it is an old development which the Government have hitherto succeeded in concealing from us (I do not make any particular charge against this Government; all Governments have been extraordinarily secretive about nuclear developments in this country, to our disadvantage rather than to our advantage)—is timely. Mr. Healey recently recanted on the Chevaline decision which was taken secretly by a previous Labour Government. There can be no doubt that, if that decision had been taken publicly, it would not have been made, and we would have saved a great deal of money on a process which Mr. Healey now agrees was a mistake and which has cost us millions and millions of pounds.

I hope, therefore, that the noble Viscount will not take refuge in unnecessary secrecy. If it is true that an American reserve control is to be established in this country at High Wycombe, and if it is true that that reserve command will retain operational control over American weapons in this country, it seems to me that it is necessary for us to reassert ourselves, and I hope that the noble Viscount will tell us that we are going to do so.

Baroness Airey of Abingdon

My Lords, perhaps I may be permitted a very few words. We should not give comfort to our potential enemies. What we discuss in this House is published and will be read with great interest in Russia and in other countries which may have sympathy with her. I speak from a very vulnerable position as both a mother and a grandmother. Noble Lords can therefore imagine that my sympathies are to a very large extent with those who have spoken. However, I do not feel that this is the way in which we shall best deter what we most fear. Everything has shown in the past, and will in the future, that by being prepared and by not saying too much we shall be in a far better position to counter what we most fear. Therefore I believe that we should not in any way play into the hands of our potential enemies. I feel very deeply that over the past years we have had the good fortune to have peace through strength.

10.54 p.m.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, the debate on which we are engaged tonight has been partly initiated because of the lack of assurances which, though demanded, have not been forthcoming from the British Government. The Government do not help themselves in the handling of the matter of control of bases sited on British soil or, indeed, in British territorial waters, as was evident when my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney brought here for Second Reading only a few weeks ago his Bill relating to bases. As the Government do not help themselves, and as they believe that such bases are justified, they ought to accept that natural fears should be satisfied as far as possible.

On the matter which we are discussing, on 15th December in the other place the Prime Minister replied to a Question for Written Answer from Mr. Frank Allaun, who asked what agreement had been reached regarding the transfer of the United States command headquarters from Stuttgart to the United Kingdom. Her reply was very brief indeed. She wrote: We have agreed that in war time an alternative headquarters for parts of US European command may be located at Wycombe air station", and she went on to explain a few more details. The opportunity was not taken to say whether or not that was the only agreement.

One can agree very simply to a demand, or one can make requests which are, in the minds of many of us, absolutely essential to this vital matter. Apparently, from the Written Answer, there were no restrictions, no indications of joint control, and no safeguards mentioned. So the Prime Minister missed the opportunity, if there were all these safeguards, to give the information which our country needs and has a right to know.

The news of the proposals about the siting of the American bases in this country came, as my noble friend has said, from various sources, including the American press. In the absence of reassurances from the Government, this was bound to lead to fear. Denials about bases being established here, followed by admissions that talks were taking place and that alternative war-time headquarters will be located at the Wycombe air station, did not add to our confidence. But, of course, war-time headquarters are not places at which operations are started after the beginning of hostilities, but where preparations have to be made a long time in advance. Such a base is sure to be in use long before it is actually required, even if it is not needed later. If there is a war and it turns into a nuclear confrontation, then not only the base but also the area in which it is situated will be under attack. This can be a very big area indeed.

Part of the concern arises from the considered American view that Europe may or will be the place of conflict in the future, with West Germany a possible centre of hostilities. Why else should the United States be thinking of moving the base from Stuttgart to the United Kingdom? It is known that General Rogers has made proposals which will make NATO less reliant on nuclear capability, but we have not yet heard the reactions of Her Majesty's Government. The fear is that if countries are not adquately equipped for conventional defence, then they may be forced to go nuclear at an early stage in order to maintain or secure the advantage. All this brings in far wider issues than the subject of this debate might suggest—and into which, obviously, I will not go this evening.

What concerns us is not merely that bases under foreign control are being sited here but the purposes for which they will be used. If they were for conventional defence, the concern might be less than it is when we know that nuclear aspects will dominate. In another place on 15th December Mr. Pym, the Foreign Secretary, said (at col. 319): There are long-standing agreements under which the use of such bases in an emergency would be a matter for joint decision with the British Government.". He went on to say that British personnel will also be involved. When asked by my right honourable friend Mr. Healey: Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that if those missiles are ever placed in Great Britain they will be subject to the same dual-control arrangements as for earlier American nuclear weapons based in Great Britain? Mr. Pym replied that he could not give that assurance.

I certainly think that the noble Viscount the Minister of State for Defence Procurement should give this House some assurance tonight, if it can be given. Can we be told now the conditions for the use of the base? In reply to my right honourable friend Mr. Healey, the Foreign Secretary said on 15th December that he took on board the anxieties expressed by my right honourable friend and others, but that was as far as he could go then—although he did note what had been said. I believe that your Lordships' House is entitled to far more information on the aspects which were denied to the other place.

I believe it is a significant aspect of the so-called "Falklands factor" that the Prime Minister is depicted as someone who thinks that Britain is a force to be reckoned with; that we are right to show we mean business when our rights are threatened; and that we are not going to be pushed around. Certainly our forces did well for Britain in a conflict with a small power, albeit 8,000 miles away—and we showed that Britain still means business. Of course, it was not the Prime Minister alone who did it. On a matter of much graver importance where the lives of millions of our citizens are at stake through nuclear weapons, we still need to show that in matters of life and death Britain is not going to be pushed around and we still maintain our right to influence and control our destiny.

As we enter the final stages of the season of peace, comfort and joy, we are at least entitled to some comfort, even if the joy is not evident at this particular time. I believe the Minister can do much to help the Government by giving the assurance which the House needs on this occasion.

11.2 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, I welcome an opportunity to clear up what would appear, from what the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, has just said, to be an enormous misunderstanding, in spite of answers that have already been given in the other place on this subject. I should start by saying that I believe that the main reason why there has been a misunderstanding is because the news became public in a news story and was not released by the Government at this time. I want to say to the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, that there is no question of this being a matter which would or should have remained secret. There are military matters that we do wish to keep secret, but this is one that in our own good time would have been released. However, to put it quite frankly and bluntly, the press beat us to it with a story which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, will see by the time I have answered this Question, did not exactly portray the correct balance of what is a pretty minor move. What all noble Lords have said has convinced me that there is enormous misunderstanding. I will not make comments on such assertions as this country becoming a military colony of the USA, because I really do not believe that they are worth comment.

My Lords, a united NATO will continue to prevent war. The subject of this Question is, if I may say so, and as I think I can explain, a storm in a teacup; it must not be allowed to be interpreted as any change in NATO's realistic plan to prevent aggression against any member of the alliance.

NATO's headquarters is on the Continent, as are 275,000 out of over 300,000 United States forces personnel in Europe. They will stay there and prevent aggression. A number of misleading statements have been made about the residue of the United States European Command Headquarters in the event of any aggression. US European Command—EUCOM for short—in Stuttgart is currently the unified command covering all US forces of all three services in Europe in peacetime. There are no plans to move it from Stuttgart in West Germany. The US Commander-in-Chief who commands US EUCOM in peace, also, and most importantly, is the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, SACEUR. He commands NATO forces from the headquarters in Mons in Belgium. This is Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, SHAPE for short. In war-time SACEUR would relinquish the post of US Commander-in-Chief Europe. Furthermore, and vitally important, all US combat forces would be placed under SACEUR and SHAPE.

The vast majority of US forces in Europe would, therefore, be placed under NATO command on the Continent in the event of any war. A very different US EUCOM would then be purely concerned with the control of US forces remaining under national command. This very different US EUCOM may have to be located in a more secure facility than that which exists at Stuttgart. Such a facility, in fact, already exists at the USAF base at Wycombe in the United Kingdom. If in wartime US EUCOM moved to these facilities it would be responsible for directing the administrative reinforcements and logistic support of US forces in Europe and for exercising control over forces not yet committed to NATO. In my terms, my Lords, it could be called principally a supplies and reserves headquarters. It occurs to me that it may have been a pity that it has been called EUCOM at all because by far the largest part of the responsibilities of peacetime EUCOM—that is, at Stuttgart—would be transferred to SHAPE at Mons in Belgium, as has always been planned.

I say to the noble Lords, Lord Brockway and Lord Jenkins, that had they perhaps been Belgians they might have been suggesting that Mons was becoming a dangerous place, because that is where SACEUR will command the defence of NATO if deterrence were to fail, which, as I have said, in my opinion clearly it will not. The main reason why the United States have decided that they would like to locate this headquarters at Wycombe in wartime is that the secure facilities which may be necessary in the main exist at Wycombe, whereas at the other localities examined by the US they would have to be created and would cost much more. Such an important but mundane reason would, of course, not have been newsworthy. Thus, there has indeed been blown up a storm in a tea cup.

Let me summarise the reality of the situation and try to put it in perspective. NATO, with over 300,000 US service personnel stationed in Europe, can and will prevent aggression against any of its members. Our plans for resisting aggression and making deterrence work must include a realistic plan for such resistance. That plan is, and always has been, based on NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe at Mons in Belgium under SACEUR. Therefore, there is no question of the Wycombe fallback facility in any way being the headquarters for the whole command in Europe, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, suggested. In the case of war, that will be NATO's supreme headquarters at Mons in Belgium. In planning more secure facilities for the necessary US administrative headquarters for supplies and reserves a decision has been taken, principally for reasons of cost, to seek agreement to locate it at an existing US Air Force facility.

The Question asks on what conditions has this been agreed. The arrangements have been agreed under the general provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty and the agreement of Status of Forces of Parties to the North Atlantic Treaty. Both were published as Command Papers, and are therefore held in the Library.

My answer, I hope, makes clear that the political and military importance of forward defence to resist aggression remains the cornerstone of NATO's policy.

The noble Lords, Lord Brockway and Lord Jenkins of Putney, in speaking to the Question tabled, have also covered much other familiar ground which we have heard them cover previously. I will not follow them, except to observe that the similarity today of statements emanating from Moscow, the CND and others who seek to disturb, or have the effect of disturbing, the unity of NATO, has now reached a point which is not in the interests of the free defensive democracies. The type of phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, that the strategy of deterrence has been changed, that first strikes with accurate weapons are planned, is the propaganda of the Soviet aggressors almost ungarnished.

Freedom and democracy, which we seek so passionately to defend, do have their handicaps when headlines in our free media can be so easily produced along lines likely to produce discord among the allies. Let us keep the right to criticise one another both within our country and between the countries of the alliance. But let us be on our guard against that right being used to put our very freedom at risk.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, I would be very grateful if he would address himself to a single point. Is it not the case that greater accuracy of nuclear weapons has been occurring? If it is being pointed out in different parts of the world that the greater accuracy of nuclear weapons can bring its own dangers, this ought not to disturb the noble Viscount, but I suggest that he ought to respond to the increasing dangers which greater accuracy means and the fact that the Americans have been talking in terms of counter-force strategy.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, should be pleased, as indeed I am, that these awesome weapons are more accurate and can therefore be an even more effective deterrent than their previous generation. But I am absolutely clear that NATO and Europe, as President Reagan has repeatedly made clear, have made entirely clear that no weapon will be used unless there is aggression. Therefore, although the weapons themselves will change there is no change in the deterrence strategy which has kept the peace of the world for the last 35 years.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, may I say to him, with all the Christmas spirit I can muster, that I do not think he helps his case by the type of smears of association with which he ended his remarks. He must surely realise that the concern expressed here tonight is not one with doubtful origins, but is a genuine concern of millions of people of all points of view.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I noted the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, and I certainly intend him no smear whatever. I have a certain sympathy as to his ability to reconcile those words with the degree to which his official party spokesmen have moved to a nuclear unilateral position in recent public broadcasts. One has to observe the degree of similarity of much of what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, in particular says on each occasion, with the propaganda that is coming out of Soviet news agencies day in and day out.

I would only hope that in this House, as in the past, the Front Bench of the Opposition—indeed, the main spokesmen from every part of the House—will, as usually happens when we have a defence debate, show a degree of determination to maintain the alliance, to foster the alliance, and not to break it down.

House adjourned at a quarter past eleven o'clock.