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Nuclear Weapons: Launch Control

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 16 February 1984

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the first Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are cognisant of the United States President's rights, under US law, to delegate the authority to release or use nuclear weapons located in this country; and whether any President has ever done so, and if so which, and to whom, on what occasion, for how long, and under what conditions.

My Lords, the effect of the existing understandings between the United Kingdom and the United States is that no United States nuclear weapon would be fired or launched from British territory without the agreement of the British Prime Minister and the United States President. There is no question of either of them relinquishing their control.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, which adds some clarity. My Question actually addressed itself to the rights of the United States President under United States law to devolve the decision to another American person. Can the noble Lord tell the House whether the Government are fully aware of what American law is in this respect?

My Lords, the question of detailed interpretation of American law is not, I think, for me. But I can assure the noble Lord that the British Government are entirely happy with the arrangements.

My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that there is a very real and important difference between dual control and dual key? Is he aware that we on this side of the House believe that in order to reduce our dependence on the United States or on any other country, and to maintain our sovereignty, duel key is of vital importance? The ultimate physical operation of the key is what we do not have, and is it in the minds of Her Majesty's Government to negotiate for that?

My Lords, I am naturally aware of the view of the Opposition in these matters but, of course, the Government fundamentally disagree.

My Lords, can the noble Lord the Minister say whether the understanding between the two governments to which he referred took account of the President's legal right to delegate firing authority to personnel in this country?

My Lords, the Government's agreement to the present arrangements of course took account of all the considerations.

My Lords, is it not possible to press the Minister on this point? We constantly receive replies about this understanding but we have never been told its content, or its date, or its authority. Could not the agreement perhaps be renegotiated and published? Or may we be told in some other way the contents of this understanding?

My Lords, the original understanding was reached, if my memory serves me right, between the late Lord Attlee and the late President Truman. A statement was made at the time, and I recall quoting that statement to your Lordships.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a good deal of time has passed since then? Is he further aware that no Government spokesman has yet made so blunt a rejection of dual key as the noble Lord has today? Can he say what objection the Government have to dual key?

With respect, my Lords, that is rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that, nowithstanding the understandable concern over the decision-making on these awesome weapons, the most important factor to ensure peace is the perception of any potential aggressor? His perception must be of a free democratic alliance which is necessarily cumbersome but which nevertheless is in a position and able to make any aggression too costly to contemplate. In plain words, let us keep this matter in perspective—I hope my noble friend will agree—and make sure that any potential aggressor knows he cannot get away with it.

My Lords, my noble friend, from his position of considerable experience in these matters, is of course quite right.

My Lords, does not the noble Lord the Minister agree that the position today is very different from what it was when the original agreement was made? Does he not agree that the position today is that it is very short notice before a weapon released in this country can arrive in another country? Therefore, is not the situation very much more dangerous, and are not the arguments in favour of dual key very much stronger than they were originally?

My Lords, circumstances have of course changed since the original agreement was reached. That is why the agreement is reviewed, and has been reviewed, every time a new President or a new Prime Minister comes to Office.

My Lords, the Minister said that, in reviewing the agreement with the United States, the Government have kept under consideration all relevant factors—and the state of United States law is one of those. Would the House be right to deduce from that answer that the Government are cognizant of what United States law is on this point?