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Nuclear Attack: Checks On False Warnings

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 15 January 1981

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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 have noted the US Congressional report that defence computers flash false warnings of Soviet nuclear attacks nearly twice a week and that within an 18-month period four alarms were regarded so seriously that senior commanders met to consider retaliation; whether the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence is alerted to such alarms; and whether such alarms have been flashed by defence computers in Britain.

My Lords, the Government have noted this report. The United Kingdom Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station at RAF Fylingdales has been alerted to such alarms and have been able to help in verifying errors.

My Lords, are not these facts very disturbing? Is it not the case, as recognised by the noble Viscount's predecessor, that human error could accompany computer error? Would the noble Viscount not agree that if there was an epidemic in the world which threatened all life, then world action—West and East, North and South—would be taken; and is this not a man-made epidemic just as disastrous, potentially, for mankind?

My Lords, the seriousness of atomic warfare is, of course, understood by all in the House. I cannot myself understand how the noble Lord could read the report to which his Question refers and which I have read myself, and still maintain any alarm whatsoever. As my predecessor has explained before now, there are many immediate checks and cross-checks, human and mechanical, and there are many stages of conference after an apparently ambiguous set of data appears on a warning system. On no occasion has retaliatory action been even considered. I quote from the report on which the noble Lord bases his Question:

"The final action taken is to convene a missile attack conference which brings in all senior personnel, including the President. No such conference has ever been convened".
I believe the noble Lord's alarm is clearly false alarm.

My Lords, may there not be some alarm from the other direction? If "Wolf!" is called quite as often as this, have we any assurance that a real danger call will be taken seriously?

My Lords, I welcome having to reply to the question that way round. I believe the systems and cross-checks are so numerous that the real attack would be quickly verified here and in many places in the United States; but there would still be more than one investigatory and precautionary stage when aeroplanes might take off, well before any final decisions for retaliatory action were even considered.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that this series of questions which is being asked by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, and other members of the CND follows very much the historical precedent set by the Peace Pledge Union before the last war, and that that did so much to encourage our would-be enemies in those days to think that we would not defend ourselves that these questions should be seen in proper perspective?

My Lords, while thanking the noble Viscount for his full reply, and though not agreeing with it entirely, may I ask him whether, if the Government recognise the danger of a nuclear war, they would take the initiative at the disarmament convention now meeting at Geneva on the instructions of the United Nations to propose a treaty which would dismantle nuclear weapons all over the world, in the East as well as the West, with adequate verification?

My Lords, I think that is a separate question which has also been answered many times. Her Majesty's Government will support any steps towards the practical control and limitation of atomic weapons, but the operative word is "practical".

My Lords, while personally feeling confident that the democratic processes which occur in the West, as underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, are fairly certain to make sure that we are protected from pressing a button too soon on our side, are we by any means happy that on the other side, where there is a rather less feeling for human life, they might not press a button too soon?

My Lords, our security is the realisation—and I believe that our potential enemies are realistic—that if a button were pressed light-heartedly the retribution would be such as to make sure that they did not do it.

My Lords, if Her Majesty's Government are willing to support steps that are taken, why do they not themselves take them?

My Lords, I am being very dense; I have not fully understood the supplementary question put by the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the noble Viscount said in answer to a previous question that Her Majesty's Government would support steps in certain directions. I am asking why, if they are willing to support steps taken, they do not themselves take them.

My Lords, I had not realised that the noble Baroness was referring to the question before the last. I think that my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has taken every opportunity, both unofficially and officially, to look for ways of furthering the cause of practical control of nuclear weapons by all countries.

My Lords, bearing in mind that the Question referred to accidental release of nuclear weapons in response to false data and not to the deliberate loosing of them, is the noble Viscount convinced that the precautions on the other side, on the side of the potential enemy, as he put it, are adequate to prevent that? Surely, nuclear deterrence, as such, would not work in these circumstances. Has he any communication with the Soviet bloc on these matters?

My Lords, I think that I have answered that already. I think we are satisfied that any potential enemy knows the serious consequences and takes the same careful measures as we take.