Who should control US nuclear weapons in Britain?
Although the forthcoming summit meeting in Williamsburg, Va., will grapple with economic problems, it may also be an occasion for dealing with some tough political questions. For instance, should Great Britain be granted a ''veto'' over the launching of United States nuclear-armed missiles - or aircraft - from British bases? Should the decision to launch these weapons in a crisis be shared in some way by the US president and the British prime minister?Skip to next paragraph
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Prime Minister Thatcher has sought to counter a public outcry against the scheduled deployment of US missiles by explaining that a US decision to fire its nuclear weapons based in Britain cannot be made without the consent of the British government. Under arrangements of many years' standing, she claims that a decision to launch either missiles or aircraft must be a ''joint decision'' and this, she declares, is satisfactory.
But this explanation has not silenced critics. Recent polls show a clear majority opposed to deployment of the US missiles - partly because of lack of confidence in US control. As a result, reports have circulated that Prime Minister Thatcher might seek a British veto over the firing of the missiles from the US president. Or, if this fails, she might request at least US reaffirmation of the ''joint decision'' agreement.
The difference between a ''joint decision'' and a ''veto'' might appear to be semantic, but each rests on substantially different premises which politically could have a far-reaching impact in Britain and on other NATO countries.
The ''joint decision'' arrangement between the US and Britain dates back to the early 1950s when Truman and Attlee, and then Churchill, agreed that the use of air bases in Britain by US bombers in an emergency would be by ''joint decision'' in the light of prevailing circumstances. This arrangement now applies to the planned sites for 160 US cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth.
But the lack of any direct British control over the missiles themselves or their warheads does not satisfy many Britons. The present arrangement contrasts in their minds with the ''two-key'' control for the US-made Thor missiles deployed for a short time in Britain about 20 years ago (1958-1963).
At that time a British guarantee of an ability to control, that is, to prevent a launch if it wished, was assured when the US transferred ownership of the Thor missiles to the British while retaining ownership of the nuclear warheads. Thus a true duality of control was established by a duality of ownership. Both governments had to consent in order to fire the missiles.
Thus far, however, the Thatcher government has rejected purchase of the US cruise missiles, minus the warheads, which could establish dual control, even though the US government at one time reportedly offered to sell. Budgetary stringency and an already severely strapped defense account have been advanced as reasons. As an alternative there are reports that the prime minister might ask President Reagan for a ''veto,'' meant in the US to connote a legal right directly to block the launch of US-owned nuclear missiles.