Denis Healey – 1986 Speech on the Strategic Defence Initiative

Below is the text of the speech made by Denis Healey, the then Labour MP for Leeds East, in the House of Commons on 19 February 1986.

I beg to move,

That this House regrets Her Majesty’s Government’s support for the Strategic Defence Initiative.

In some ways the strategic defence initiative is probably the most important issue in the field of foreign and defence policy, disarmament and high technology that the House has discussed for many years. Its supporters and opponents will at least agree on that.

On 23 March 1983, President Reagan made a speech in which he asked for a fundamental change in the basic policy upon which western security has been built since the second world war. He made this speech without any consultation with any of his allies, although NATO’s nuclear planning group was meeting at that time. He said that the

“human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations by threatening their existence … peace could not rest much longer on the threat of mutual suicide.”

The President dedicated himself to produce a defence against nuclear ballistic missiles which would make:

“nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

Later in Baltimore, he told schoolchildren that “the hand of providence” inspired that speech.

The President never explained how ballistic missile defence would protect the world against nuclear bombs which were carried on aircraft, such as those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by cruise missiles, by individuals or in the hold of ships. He never explained how abolishing nuclear weapons would control conventional forces, which in an all-out war could inflict horrific damage, or how he could achieve any of his objectives without reducing the political tensions that have been the cause of the arms race. However, we can all agree that at least it was a noble vision, which has been endorsed by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The strategic defence initiative that we are now discussing is very different from what President Reagan proposed nearly three years ago. The American Administration now say that the purpose of research is not to replace nuclear deterrence but to enhance it—to make the mutual suicide pact even more binding than it is today, and to threaten the survival of other nations more effectively. It is already clear that the Administration’s aim for the next 30 years at least will be to protect not the peoples of the world, but American land-based missiles, which are one of the components in America’s strategic nuclear triad.

“For the foreseeable future,”

the official American apologia for SDI now recounts,

“offensive nuclear forces, and the prospect of nuclear retaliation will remain the key element of deterrence.”

Therefore, simultaneously with SDI, the United States Government are beginning to deploy a whole arsenal of ​ new strategic nuclear weapons—the MX missile, the D5 submarine-launched missile and the Midgetman mobile missile. They foresee an immense increase in funding for research and development into what they call advanced strategic missile systems, which are a new arsenal of weapons that will enter service in the late 1990s when the first strategic defence is planned to be available. That must mean a stupendous acceleration of the arms race, greatly increasing the risk of nuclear war and making disarmament more difficult.

Indeed, the case against the President’s present proposals was made most eloquently by the President in his original speech when he said:

“If defensive systems were paired with offensive systems they could be regarded as fostering an aggressive policy, and nobody really wants that.”

The point that the combination of defence and offensive forces would appear to increase the possibility of a first strike against an enemy was repeated by him in his interview with Soviet journalists only last October, when he pointed out that it would make a first strike more feasible. The point was put most dramatically by ex-President Nixon when he said of the SDI:

“Such systems would be destabilising if they provided a shield so that you could use the sword.”

That is the basic case against the attempt to produce a ballistic missile defence, which is the purpose of the SDI.

It is not surprising that the SDI has been opposed in a somewhat coded way, not only by our Foreign Secretary in his remarkable speech in the middle of last year, for which I paid him tribute, but by two of the past three American Presidents—Presidents Carter and Ford—three of the past four American Defence Secretaries —Secretaries Brown, Schlesinger and McNamara—and all six of the surviving American Defence Secretaries who are opposed to breaking the ABM treaty, which would be necessary if a star wars system were to be deployed.

Faced with that threat which, to use President Reagan’s words, could make a first strike by the United States more likely, it is not surprising that the Soviet Government have made it clear that they will not sit on their hands. If SDI proceeds, they will increase the number of offensive missiles in the hope of swamping American defences, as the United Stated did by introducing multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles when the Russians first began deploying ballistic missile defences in the late 1960s, and, as Secretary Schlesinger, in a powerful. article attacking SDI, pointed out, as any Western Government would do in similar circumstances. Indeed, the Chevaline programme, which was introduced by the Conservative Government in the early 1970s, was introduced as a response to the Soviet deployment of an ABM system around Moscow.

That is not the only Soviet response. The Soviet Government will also seek to develop weapons which would either put the American space-based system out of action—the most likely weapon for that would be some sort of space bomb which would circle the world permanently—or make the system ineffective, for example by introducing fast burn into their intercontinental missiles so that the boost phase, which is the first target of the American system, would be reduced from five minutes to 50 seconds, and would take place entirely in the atmosphere, which it is much more difficult for the ​ proposed American laser weapons to penetrate. Finally, the Russians have made it clear that they would plan to develop their own space-based defensive systems.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman and I agree with him. But he has not mentioned the time scale for the development of the SDI by the Americans.

Mr. Healey

From discussions with General Abrahamson and others I understand that the Americans hope to start deploying some sort of ballistic missile defence within about 10 years, although the first system may be based on land rather than in space. The fact that the Americans are known to be researching into such systems makes it sensible for the Russians to start preparing against them now, just as western countries, faced with the possibility of Soviet systems, immediately started taking action either to swamp them or copy them.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham) rose—

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North) rose—

Mr. Healey

I shall give way from time to time, but I do not wish to conduct a seminar. I have no doubt that you, Mr. Speaker, will note the anxiety of hon. Members to speak.

American official sources have made it clear that in the next 10 years, if the arms race proceeds, the Soviet Union will be able to increase the number of its missiles much faster than the United States simply by keeping existing production lines open. Indeed, it could increase the number of its warheads from about 9,000 to 30,000 within 10 years, especially if the United States abandons the SALT II agreement, which would restrict the number of missiles, as the American Defence Department has asked the President to do.

Even that is not the full horror of the prospect before us. The United States has now admitted that it is examining the possibility of putting nuclear weapons into orbit to use as pumps for X-ray lasers. It has already carried out many tests for that purpose on its testing grounds in Nevada. It is already exploring nuclear weapons as an element in its SDI, although earlier it always said that the SDI would be an entirely conventional system.

We must never lose sight of the fact that the technologies that are now under examination could be used for offensive as well as defensive purposes. In response to papers produced by several American university teams, a spokesman for the American strategic defence initiative has already admitted that any laser weapon powerful enough to destroy a missile in the atmosphere could, with some redesigning, be used to incinerate a city. Even the non-nuclear lasers contemplated by the United States could produce climatic effects as horrific and catastrophic to humanity as the nuclear winter—a concept with which people are now becoming familiar.

Faced with that terrifying prospect, any European Government should be using all their efforts to stop the arms race from entering that new phase while there is still time. Despite the publicly expressed hostility of the French Government to the SDI, and despite the deep and public divisions in the German Government about the SDI, the ​ British Prime Minister decided to jump the gun on all her European allies and not only to endorse the programme but to offer to put British scientists at its disposal.

The Prime Minister sought to justify that sell-out by two arguments. First, she told us that the President gave her satisfactory undertakings at their meeting in December 1984 on the deployment of a space-based system. The second argument was that it was impossible to monitor an agreement to ban research into such a system. However, it is already clear that the American Administration have not the slightest intention of honouring three out of the four undertakings that they gave to the Prime Minister in Washington 14 months ago.

The first condition was that America would seek not to achieve superiority but to maintain the balance of strategic forces. On 1 February 1984, Secretary Weinberger told Congress:

“If we get a system … which we know can render their weapons impotent, we would be back in a situation we were in, for example, when we were the only nation with the nuclear weapon.”

He considered SDI as effectively giving the United States the monopoly that it had in 1945. That is not maintaining a balance in strategic forces.

Secondly, the President undertook that the deployment of a system related to the SDI— in view of the obligations that America accepted under the ABM treaty —would have to be a matter for negotiation with the Soviet Government as a fellow signatory of the ABM treaty, and with America’s allies. President Reagan was clear about the matter. On 6 November last year, in answer to questions, he said that if Russia did not agree to amend the ABM treaty to permit the deployment of a space-based defence system, he would go ahead and deploy it anyway. When asked by journalists whether he would permit the Soviet Government a veto on deployment, he said, “Hell, no.”

Mr. Weinberger made the same point in less colourful language. A year ago he stated:

“I am ruling out the possibility of giving up on strategic defence, either in the research stage or if it becomes feasible in the deployment stage.”

He refused to give up the possibility of deploying SDI under any circumstances if it proved feasible.

As the House will recall, it was that refusal even to consider negotiations that blocked all progress at the recent Geneva summit on disarmament of strategic nuclear forces. That in turn makes nonsense of the fourth undertaking, that East-West negotiations should aim to achieve security with reduced levels of offensive systems on both sides.

Both sides are now planning to increase greatly the number of their offensive systems and to increase new types of defensive weapons. There is no chance of progress on strategic nuclear disarmament unless the United States is prepared to negotiate about the abandonment of the strategic defence initiative. The tragedy is that that has become clear just at the time when the new Soviet proposals for disarmament—perhaps engendered to some extent by the fear of the SDI deployment—represent major concessions in the Soviet position, not least on intermediate nuclear forces, where the Soviets have accepted the zero option, which was first put to the Russians by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and myself when we met Mr. Brezhnev in 1981. It was also put forward by President Reagan on behalf of NATO in discussions with ​ the Soviet Union about a year later. Since the war there has never been a time when the prospects for progress on disarmament have been more propitious. There is now a real chance of doing that to which the American and Soviet Governments committed themselves when Mr. Shultz and Mr. Gromyko agreed a year ago to end the arms race on earth and to prevent an arms race in space.

The Prime Minister’s excuse for supporting the SDI as a research programme is that it is impossible to monitor or verify a ban on research and that the Soviet Union is carrying out research into ballistic missile defence in any case.

As I pointed out when we previously debated this subject during the debate on the Queen’s Speech in November, although research carried on inside people’s heads or inside laboratories is impossible to monitor without access to those laboratories, such research cannot go far without physical tests, or “demonstrations” as the Americans call them. Tests of components in a possible system that take place outside laboratories can be monitored by satellite photography and other means and are continuously monitored by the American and Soviet Governments at present. The Russians have at last offered to draw a distinction between research in laboratories and brains and the type of tests outside laboratories that can be monitored, without which such research cannot proceed very far.

The Americans have listed such tests as having been carried out by the Russians. They have described some of the preparations that they say the Russians are making to produce a ballistic missile defence. However, I understand that their interpretation of the Krasnoyarsk radar—their prime exhibit—is not shared by the British Government. I hope that the Secretary of State will come clean on that matter in his reply. Evidence given to the Defence Committee by some officials made it clear that we do not endorse the American interpretation of Krasnoyarsk. The Russians have agreed to dismantle the Krasnoyarsk system if Britain dismantles similar systems at Fylingdales and Thule. Many people believe that they are as contrary to the ABM system as is the Krasnoyarsk radar.

Mr. Michael Heseltine (Henley)

The right hon. Gentleman was responsible for many years for Fylingdales. Was it part of an ABM system?

Mr. Healey

No, it was not then, but the right hon. Gentleman and his Government agreed to develop Fylingdales as a phased array radar of a type very similar to that at Krasnoyarsk. That is a new development which the Russians have already claimed is contrary to the ABM treaty, on exactly the same grounds as the Americans claim that Krasnoyarsk is contrary to the treaty. I am glad to see that the right hon. Gentleman does not dispute that fact.

Mr. Heseltine

Perhaps I would if the right hon. Gentleman gave me the chance. I was deeply involved in the matter. The purpose of the modernised Fylingdales is no different from the purpose over which the right hon. Gentleman presided.

Mr. Healey

That is precisely what the Russians argue about Krasnoyarsk: that its purpose is to track objects in space, not to—[Interruption.] Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would love to conduct a seminar because I know that education and instruction is widely required by Conservative Members.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) rose—

​Mr. Healey

No, I have dealt with the question of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman is getting carried away. The essential difference is that Fylingdales existed before the ABM treaty and Krasnoyarsk did not.

Mr. Healey

Of course Fylingdales existed before the treaty, but it is being developed in a way that is incompatible with the treaty. That is precisely the complaint made by the Soviet Government. If the right hon. Gentleman is sensitive about his complicity in the matter, and if he believes, like the Americans, that the Krasnoyarsk radar violates the treaty, let the British Government agree to the Soviet proposal to cease development at Fylingdales, Krasnoyarsk and Thule, which seem to be a perfectly sensible proposal that would not harm Western security and would relieve many people of what I believe to be legitimate anxieties.

If the West is really worried about Soviet research into ballistic missile defence or anti-satellite systems, where in some respects the Soviet Union is further advanced than the United States, it could kill those systems stone dead by accepting a ban on observable tests. None of the Government’s excuses for supporting such tests hold the slightest amount of water, since they are fully capable of being monitored.

The strategic defence initiative has become the major obstacle to stopping the arms race. It is widely agreed that it would be possible with existing means to monitor a comprehensive test ban, especially since the Soviet Government have agreed to on-site inspection. But the SDI requires nuclear tests underground of X-ray laser bombs, some of which have already been carried out in Nevada. Mr. Miller, a top scientist at Livermore, has argued in public that even the non-nuclear components of the proposed SDI require testing in a nuclear environment which can be produced only by the explosion of nuclear weapons.

The tragedy is that this opportunity to stop the arms race may be the last unless we can pop this genie back in the bottle now. What must worry many hon. Members is that the major obstacle to a reduction in strategic weapons is the American attachment to the SDI, just as the major obstacle to accepting the Soviet proposal for the zero option on intermediate nuclear forces is the British Government’s determination to go ahead with the Trident programme, although there is growing opposition even in the services to continuing that programme, since, as the right hon. Member for Henley will recall, one reason why our forces cannot afford helicopters produced by Westland is that, in a few years’ time, 30 per cent. of the new equipment budget will be taken up by Trident.

Her Majesty’s Government and the American Government together have erected a massive road block on the way to peace. All this has been compounded during the past few months by the grubby conspiracy of the British Government to encourage British scientists to leave vital British programmes of civilian research, such as the Alvey programme, and work instead on SDI research for the American Government. It is yet another sell-out to American pressure— one of vital importance to the future of British industry.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) will deal at greater length with some problems surrounding the agreement made by the Secretary of State ​ for Defence, which General Abrahamson was pursuing during his recent visit to London. I hope that he will tell us a little more about the agreement, since I understand that he met General Abrahamson yesterday.

The memorandum of understanding that the Government signed with America on this matter is scarcely worth the paper on which it is written, because such memoranda can be overridden at any time by the American Congress, as Congress overrode the wartime agreement to share nuclear technology when it passed the McMahon Act, and as the Americans overrode another agreement when they cancelled the Skybolt project on which an earlier Conservative Government were relying to replace the aging V bombers. As the right hon. Member for Henley may remember, a few years ago, the Americans unilaterally broke the memorandum of understanding to produce an airfield attack weapon, the JP233. Indeed, it may have been before his time. That memorandum was signed by his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym) whom he has joined on the Government Back Benches. They seem to be a depository for former Defence Ministers.

But even if the memorandum of understanding is not overridden by the United States, it is vital that the House should know what its provisions are. We know only one thing about the memorandum: that the former Secretary of State completely failed in his stated objective to guarantee $1,500 million-worth of work for Britain. We must rely entirely on leaks, most of which are coming from the United States. However, some have come from the familiar source—the Department of Trade and Industry —which let it be known during the negotiation of the agreement that it was unhappy about the right hon. Gentleman’s failure to obtain satisfactory assurances on intellectual property rights and on technology transfer.

Connoisseurs of British politics will be intrigued by the fact that there was what psychologists call role-reversal on that occasion. The right hon. Member for Henley was trying to sell out to the Americans, and his comrade in adversity, the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, was trying to protect European technology. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that circumstances alter cases, although I found his posing as a great European odd when I considered his record on the memorandum of understanding on the SDI and his position on the purchase of the Trident missile.

We have been told by leaks that the Department of Trade and Industry was immensely unhappy about the provision to enable British scientists to use the knowledge which they acquire in this research and to produce products which can be transferred to other countries in commercial sale.

No information is available to the House about the provisions. There are no military security grounds for denying the House this information, and there is every reason for its having the information. Is it the case, as one of the American leaks has claimed, that intellectual property rights and technology transfer will have to be settled case by case in company-to-company contracts, and therefore the British Government have acquired no guarantees whatever in this field which will protect British interests?

The Government of the Federal Republic of Germany have said in advance— they have not yet signed the ​ memorandum of understanding—that they will not cough up any of their own money. One of the leaks I have read says that Her Majesty’s Government have agreed to provide one third of the money for any Government-to-Government contracts from the British Treasury. That is a matter of immense importance to the House. Hon. Members have every reason to be told the truth, yet we are denied it.

We are also told that there are penal cancellation clauses in this agreement in an attempt to bind any future Government to implement its provisions. I am certain that any future House of Commons will demand the same right as the American Congress has often exercised, to override a memorandum of understanding about which it has been given no information whatever.

The central issue on this agreement is a general and simple one. We all know that Britain has a substantial lead over the United States in some of the new technologies, particularly those relating to fifth and sixth generation computers which, it is hoped, will have artificial intelligence and be capable of learning. It is essential—I hope the right hon. Member for Henley agrees, in the light of his recent speeches—that we should use this unique advantage in high technology to build a European base so that Europe can compete on equal terms in these areas with the United States and Japan.

We should not sell out to the United States, and particularly to American defence interests from which there will be only a small commercial spin-off, even if we are allowed under the agreement to make use of the spin-off. I noticed the other day that the assistant head of research at IBM, who can be regarded as a fairly independent authority on these matters, says that the right word is not “spin-off’, but “drip-off.” The amount of commercial advantage which even the Americans will get out of this diversion of research and development from civilian to military research will be small compared to the colossal resources which it is planned to invest in it.

In an earlier debate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) said that to make these points is not to be anti-American; it is anti-British not to make them. It is time that this Government got off their hind legs and started putting Britain first. The Prime Minister and the Government as a whole have shown a feckless indifference to British interests. That has characterised the whole of their industrial policy, which we have been debating at length in recent weeks, and it threatens the very survival of the manufacturing side of our economy. Feckless indifference to the interests of peace by supporting the SDI is even more dangerous.

I ask the House to vote for the motion. At least it is one means of stopping the sell-out to American pressure which is corrupting every area of our public life, both at home and abroad.