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Chemical Weapons

Volume 978: debated on Thursday 7 February 1980

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—( Mr. Cope.)

11.59 pm

I realise that the use of chemical weaponsis a highly unpalatable topic and touches upon the moral sensibilities of many people, but as long as a potential enemy has the capacity and intention to use chemical weapons I believe that it is the duty of the House to consider the realities of the situation rather than to attempt to put on one side a matter that might, for convenience, be ignored.

I appreciate that there is a danger that I shall be accused of warmongering in the light of the worsening international situation that has occurred as a result of Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. However, the use of chemical weapons has concerned me far longer than that. My concern goes back to the days when I was the officer in charge of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare in my Territorial Army unit.

I am not alone in the House in expressing concern, and I know that hon. Members are aware that there is an early-day motion in my name calling upon Her Majesty's Government to consider the introduction of a chemical offensive capability for the British forces as a deterrent to Soviet and Warsaw Pact aggression. Many other hon. Members have signed that motion, and I shall deal in a moment with the Soviet capacity and intention to use chemical weapons as part of conventional battle. Current events have manifested that capacity and intention.

In Newsweekmagazine this week there is a report of the Soviets using chemical weapons in Afghanistan. One Afghan refugee is reported to have said that America must send Afghanistan some medicines because the Russians had dropped a cloud on them from their flying machines. He said that many of his people were sick.

A defecting Afghan army officer has spoken of chemical bombs bursting in the air after being dropped from aero-planes. The gas spread, causing vomiting, breathing defects and blindness. Some victims were paralysed and a number of deaths were reported.

It is important that we should be clear in our minds what is meant by chemical weapons. In many cases the technology has not moved as fast as in other aspects of warfare, but the effects are as lethal as ever.

There are five types. Choking agents include phosgene. Eighty per cent. of First World War gas casualties were caused by this kind of agent. Disseminated as a gas, the agent diffuses into the soft membranes lining the lungs, causing the cells to secrete water in an attempt to wash away the poison. This leads to the air sacs filling with liquid, in which the unfortunate victim drowns.

The second type of agents can be termed blood agents. The best known of these agents is hydrogen cyanide. Disseminated as a vaporised liquid aerosol, or gas, it prevents the normal transfer of oxygen from the blood to the tissues, resulting in suffocation and death.

Another type of chemical agent is that which incapacitates its victims. CS gas as used in Northern Ireland and elsewhere for riot control falls within this category, although, perhaps more insidiously, there are types which cause mental rather than physical incapacity.

Blister agents such as mustard gas have been in use for a long time. I remember being a guinea pig in the use of mustard gas in so far as a minute droplet was placed on my wrist. Within a couple of hours a significant blister had appeared. When it is inhaled either as a liquid or as a vapour, the effect obviously can be fatal.

Lastly and by far the most terrifying type is nerve gas, the use of which seems to be appearing in Afghanistan. It was originally discovered by a German scientist prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. It is colourless and has no warning odour. The American VX gas can kill a goat within a minute, and a goat is more resistant than a human being.

Hon. Members can perhaps visualise it if I say that a lethal dose can be represented by the size of a pinhead in a cubic litre of air. The gas creates muscular spasms, which destroy the whole nervous system in a short space of time.

Against this threat, NATO countries have concentrated upon improving their defensive posture. However, we have to ask whether that is sufficient. An effective offensive capability could be achieved at very little cost since these weapons are not expensive to produce.

It was General Jones, whom I shall quote in a moment, who said that the current overall protective capability must still be rated as marginal to limited, primarily because of insufficient supplies of protective shelters and decontaminating equipment and the lack of area warning systems.

When I visited our forces in Germany last September, I was surprised to find the depth of feeling amongst senior officers who felt that the absence of a chemical offensive capability was a lacuna in our deterrence armoury.

I believe that the uneasy peace in the world rests upon the concept of deterrent. The Soviet Union has demonstrated its ability to use chemical weapons, whereas the only NATO country to have recourse to a limited arsenal of nerve agents and mustard gas is the United States. In those circumstances, there is a massive gap of alarming proportions in NATO's deterrent ability. The Soviet Union must realise that it could use chemical weapons with impunity, while the West could not effectively retaliate. This gives the Soviet Union greater advantage so as to render greater rather than less the likelihood of war.

We have had warnings. In his article in "Strategic Review" in the autumn of 1979, Professor Erickson, director of defence studies at the university of Edinburgh, says:
"The Soviet Union is engaged in a major effort to expand its already formidable capability for waging chemical warfare."
The concern that this intense effort is eliciting among NATO military authorities is mirrored in the following statement of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David C. Jones, whom I quoted a moment ago, in his United States military posture for the fiscal year 1980. He says:
"The Soviets have the world's most thoroughly armed and equipped chemical warfare force which is prepared to operate in a chemical, bacteriological and radiological environment. Their offensive and defensive chemical operations capabilities continue to improve."
The general endorsed the view of his predecessor, General Brown, that there had been no restriction by the Soviets in efforts to maintain superiority in combat operations involving the use of chemical weapons and the doctrine of conducting sustained chemical operations in conjunction with either nuclear or conventional warfare.

A recent report in The Observer on 27 January drew attention to some 80,000 Soviet troops in specialist chemical branches, while some 15 per cent. of their missiles are equipped with chemical ammunition. Conventional weapons provide an easy means of delivery, perhaps the most noteworthy of which is the BM21 rocket launcher, which can saturate a square kilometre with some 720 chemical-carrying rockets in 15 seconds. In addition to that, the Soviets have the D30 and other forms of artillery which can be used with equal significance and force for the delivery of chemical weapons.

In the light of such evidence, there is no need for the West to be squeamish about the use of chemical weapons. The 1925 protocol to the Geneva convention did no more than prohibit the use of chemical weapons, but said nothing about their manufacture. There can be small consolation in that when one looks to history to find that in 1889 the Hague international peace conference declared the intention
"to abstain from the use of all projectiles, the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases."
Within 40 years, the world saw the most terrifying use of gas in the First World War.

In 1935–36 some 15,000 out of a total of about 50,000 Ethiopian army casualties were caused by chemical weapons during the Italian invasion. In the past, there has been no reluctance by countries to use chemical weapons, and I believe that that is the reality of today.

The Soviet superiority over the United States in chemical warfare capabilities has been assessed as "considerable", and the imbalance has continued to grow. Efforts are being made to ameliorate some of the deficiencies, but this merely emphasises the need for this country to join our allies in having a chemical retaliatory capacity.

It is right that I should pay tribute to the work done at Porton and Winter-bourne Gunner on research and development which gives this country an extremely effective defensive posture. I speak with particularly warm affection of the latter establishment, which is where I did my two defence NBC courses when I was the NBC officer for my TA unit.

It can be maintained that the S-6 respirator which is presently issued to the British Army and the current nuclear biological and chemical suit are the best equipment in the world. They are certainly superior to those of the USSR.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) takes a particular interest in these matters in his constituency. I am sure that both he and other hon. Members will accept that good defence is no substitute for offensive capability. All indications about the use of chemical weapons are enhanced by the knowledge that nerve gas can kill within a few seconds. It is non-persistent, thus affording the opportunity to destroy the manpower in military establishments, both in the front line and beyond, but without destroying material.

I believe that we would see the use of chemical weapons as part of conventional battle in any future offensive by the USSR. We are seeing it already in Afghanistan. Indeed, if one looks to the military theoreticians in the USSR—people such as Voroshilov and Marshal Sokholovsky—one sees, by reading their pontifications on the concept of modern warfare, that as far as they are concerned the original concept has not changed with the advent of modern technology. That must include not only chemical weapons but also nuclear weapons. That is part of the belief of the Soviet Union in one unit of conventional battle. They do not conveniently compartmentalize the different aspects, as we choose to do in the West—I suspect because of moral reasons rather than military reasons.

The possibility of the use of conventional means of delivery, such as artillery, rockets and aircraft, means that chemical weapons will probably be mixed with more conventional fire power, thus making detection impossible until the effects are felt.

I do not wish to delve deep into the realms of hypothesis, but perhaps for the benefit of the House I can paint a scenario of what might happen. A British soldier in his trench, with respirator and NBC suit, is subjected to what he regards as a conventional artillery attack. Unknown to that soldier, mixed with conventional artillery shells are nerve gas munitions. He then has little opportunity to try to gauge the nature of the armament that is being used against him. Perhaps the first indication of it will be when he sees one of his colleagues twitching as a result of the effects of nerve gas. He then has probably less than a few seconds in which to put on his respirator, go over to his colleague's atropine autoject, a device designed to combat the effects of nerve gas, and operate it on his colleague and try to save his life. The whole concept is terrifying.

I do not recall the last war, but certainly in the worsening international situation, if there is to be another war, it seems as if I shall be involved. I believe that the only way in which we can maintain the uneasy peace is through the concept of deterrence. That must include the ability of Britain and other native countries to be able to wage offensive chemical warfare, if only to show the Soviet Union and other potential enemies that we have the ability to maintain a stance in warfare to the same degree as theirs.

I hope that I have drawn to the House's attention the severe danger in which we stand by not having an offensive capability. I call upon my honFriend the Minister, when he replies, to give a firm commitment that the Government will not leave us with a major gap in our defences, in the interests not of war but of the peace which humanity so desperately needs.

12.14 am

I have two points. The House owes a debt to the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) for raising such an important subject. It is highly proper that we should discuss the matter.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that Prof. Erickson believes that there is Soviet chemical warfare in Afghanistan. I have talked a great deal to Prof. Erickson. I shall not repeat the arguments that I have deployed on three occasions in the past week on Afghanistan. However, if the hon. Gentleman believes that there is chemical warfare in Afghanistan, he is under an obligation to produce evidence to that effect.

The Institute of Biology and particular microbiologists such as David Hughes in Cardiff are extremely concerned that Porton should have been turned over to the Department of Health. If he has time, will the Minister explain the effects of such a transfer on people like David Hughes and the Institute of Biology?

12.15 am

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) for instituting the debate.

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) raised a matter involving a number of Departments. If I do not have time to deal with his queries, I shall see that he receives a reply in the near future.

The subject is important, and my hon. Friend dealt objectively and knowledgeably with the difficult issues involved. We should perhaps expect no less from a former member of the Territorial Army with first-hand experience in these matters.

I am sure all hon. Members will agree that in an ideal world chemical weapons would not exist. I cannot comment on magazine reports—I stress the word "reports"—on the use of chemical warfare by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. If that is true, the Government certainly deplore it.

I believe that it may be helpful, therefore, if I begin by describing where we stand on efforts to negotiate arms control agreements in this field.

The United Kingdom, along with some hundred other nations, including the United States and the Soviet Union, is party to the 1925 Geneva gas protocol, under which parties renounced the use in war of
"asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases and all analogous liquids and devices"
"bacteriological methods of warfare".
However, most of the major States which are party to the protocol, including the United Kingdom, reserved the right to use these weapons in retaliation against a similar attack or against non-signatories. In short, therefore, the effect of the protocol is to prohibit the first use of chemical weapons between parties to the treaty in war, as my hon. Friend hinted.

Biological weapons, if I might digress briefly, are now the subject of a separate and more recent international agreement—the1972 Biological Weapons Convention. That resulted from a United Kingdom initiative. It builds on the Geneva protocol by forbidding the development, production or stockpiling of biological weapons. The Soviet Union, with the United States and the United Kingdom, is a depository Power for the convention, which came into force in 1975, when the three Powers lodged their instruments of ratification, and to which more than 80 States are now party.

We thus have two types of arms control agreement—the Geneva protocol, banning the use of chemical or biological weapons, and the biological weapons convention, banning possession of biological weapons. In contrast, possession of a capability for offensive chemical warfare is not at present prohibited by international agreement. From an arms control point of view, therefore, the task now facing Governments is to achieve an agreement regarding chemical weapons that would proscribe not just their use in war but also their possession.

A draft text to assist in that was put forward in the Committee on Disarmament by the United Kingdom in 1976. Since that time, the United States and the Soviet Union have been engaged in bilateral discussions aimed at reaching agreement on the elements of such a multilateral convention to prohibit the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons. We naturally hope that the two Powers will in due course be able to transmit the results of their deliberations to the multilateral disarmament negotiating body in Geneva for the negotiation of such a convention, and we shall do everything in our power to assist.

However, in all arms control negotiations verification is a central issue. It will be particularly difficult to verify a ban on chemical weapons with any degree of confidence, unless highly intrusive verification methods can be agreed on. That problem is as yet unresolved, and I do not believe that we can, in all honesty, expect an early agreement.

In the meantime, the United Kingdom and its allies—I must emphasise that in this as in other areas of our defence policy we do not stand in isolation—must face the fact that possession of chemical weapons is not forbidden by international agreement. In particular, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, the Soviet Union possesses an extensive capability for offensive chemical warfare. It possesses both the weapons and the delivery systems. It has in addition a substantial defensive capability that is frequently exercised in training. Chemical warfare preparedness is integral to the Soviet main fighting equipment, and chemical warfare defence units are organic to every Soviet command from front to regimental level.

The Soviet chemical, biological and radiological protective systems captured during the 1973 Middle East war testify to a high state of Soviet chemical warfare preparedness and capability. This protective equipment is designed for defensive decontamination purposes but would, of course, be equally effective in facilitating offensive operations in a chemical environment to enable Soviet troops to exploit the results of the employment of chemical warfare systems in war.

In the light of this, I find it ironic though not entirely surprising that Pravda should have commented indignantly on recent press reports that the United States was considering the need to refurbish its own stocks of chemical munitions. I cannot, of course, comment in any detail on these reports. However, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, the United States does possess a chemical warfare capability, though NATO as such does not, and neither does the United Kingdom. The United States, has, of course, made it clear that it would not use chemical weapons unless they were first used by an adversary.

Obviously, the threat posed by the Soviet capability demands, effective defensive measures, and I can assure the House that we are taking them. NATO has for a long time given very high priority to defence against chemical attack. An important aim of the Alliance's deterrent and defensive measures is to minimise the advantage to be gained from the use of chemical weapons, so reducing the attractiveness of this option to an enemy. The extent to which we are successful in our chemical warfare defensive measures will be a factor in the vigorous maintenance of NATO's overall conventional defence.

It would, I think, be quite fair to say that the United Kingdom occupies a leading position in the field of chemical defence. As an example of the excellence of our protective equipment—which my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey acknowledged—an improved NBC suit, which has recently come into service with British forces, has also been sold in considerable quantity to United States forces in Europe. I believe that it is the best in the world. Research and development are undertaken at the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) has a close continuing interest, and the defensive measures to which this research contributes take the form of individual and collective protection as appropriate; detection, monitoring and decontamination equipment; and medical facilities including protective and resuscitative treatment. Our forces are, of course, fully trained in the use of all these measures.

The individual protection kit consists of a suit, gloves, boots and respirator. In addition, collective protection is provided, for example, in most armoured vehicles, in all major Royal Navy ships, in aircraft and in certain static installations. We are constantly striving for improvements to our defensive measures.

To sum up, therefore, the Government and the rest of NATO are well aware of the extensive Soviet capability for offensive chemical warfare. The threat is a very real one and we view it seriously. We are taking the necessary defensive steps, and we are seeking to achieve a more satisfactory arms control position.

The Minister talks about defensive steps. Am I right in assuming that work against anthrax and botulism has, for some reason or other, ceased, and is this satisfactory?

That is not the information that I have, but if I am wrong I shall let the hon. Gentleman know.

We are taking the necessary defensive steps. We are trying to achieve a more satisfactory arms control position. But the Government are determined that our Armed Forces should be both suitably trained and equipped.

I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that the whole subject of chemical warfare is being kept under careful review. I choose my words carefully; I can say no more than that.

I thank my hon. Friend for the important message that he has given the House tonight. It is important, because these matters must not be swept under the carpet.

Some of my hon. Friend's remarks in winding up this short but valuable debate have been interesting and somewhat alarming. Will he say more about the menace in the White Paper that is to come out in a few months' time? The matter should be more fully developed than is possible in dealing with an Adjournment debate.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for what he has said. The White Paper that is to be published in the not-too-distant future will cover a whole range of threats to the West. This is one of the matters that I hope will be covered, together with a whole series of others.

I understand the concern of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) about he more specific points that he raised. I do not wish to mislead him with replies tonight that might not be totally accurate, but I shall see that he receives a full and detailed reply in the very near future.

It is wholly reasonable that the Minister should say quite honestly and honourably that he cannot give answers off the top of his head. I would add a question about tick-borne encephalitis, because the whole question of vaccines against possible threats, how- ever remote they may seem, is a subject that we cannot sweep under the carpet—to use the hon. Gentleman's words.

However, I think that the whole matter must be seen in a slightly wider context, because there are real doubts as to whether Porton should not also develop a number of items along the lines that the Institute of Biology has put forward. This raises the whole question of the extent to which the military is, even at this stage, after all the arguments—and I have been involved in this matter one way and another for 15 years; sometimes I wish that I had not—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not making a speech, is he?

I should like to ask whether the Minister is satisfied that the relationship between the military and the Department of Health and Social Security is satisfactory in regard to the Porton establishment.

The Department of Health and Social Security and my Department are having discussions about the establishment and the transfer of functions. They are involved in some of the matters that no doubt concern the hon. Gentleman. Whether one was satisfied would depend on how one looked at the matter.

These matters and the hon. Gentleman's general concern will be dealt with in the reply that we shall send him. I appreciate that they are important, and I shall see that he is sent an early reply. There will also have to be a reply from one of my hon. Friends at the Department of Health and Social Security.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Twelve o'clock