315. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1
- UK Request for Nuclear Overflights of the US
As the British phase down and terminate their military operations in Singapore, they must solve the problem of how to return their nuclear weapons and weapons components from the Far East to the UK by the most rapid, direct, and secure means. The attached memorandum from Secretary Rogers (Tab A) reports that the British have requested the right to overfly United States territory and to use selected US air bases for the staging of RAF transports carrying nuclear weapons and components from Singapore to the UK. The British contemplate three or four such flights “fairly soon” for maintenance purposes, and then beginning in January 1970 they would plan on about one flight per week for a period of four months.
Alternative routes and methods of transport have been explored thoroughly and found unsatisfactory. Ship transport, while possible, would expose the nuclear weapons to more handling and correspondingly greater security and safety risks, and would mean the weapons [Page 964] would be unavailable to meet operational assignments for a much longer period. Alternative air routes have been rejected either because they are too long or too hazardous, or because they would involve overflying non-nuclear countries where there would be no basis for requesting reciprocal overflight privileges.
The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have conducted a joint review of the design of British weapons which would be transported, and of applicable British safety procedures. In addition, all available information concerning British operational reliability and manufacturing standards has been evaluated, and staff discussions have taken place with British personnel responsible for nuclear operations. The AEC and DOD have jointly concluded that the level of operational reliability and safety precautions characteristic of the British nuclear overflights would be equivalent to our own.
The RAF flights of course would avoid populated areas to the maximum extent possible, and would observe strict precautionary measures comparable to those we observe for transporting nuclear weapons. Plans now call for staging through US air bases in Guam, Hawaii, California, and North Carolina. The Department of Justice has studied the British request at the request of the State Department, and has concluded that you have the legal right to authorize the overflights under existing law.
As you know, for many years the British have accorded overflight and staging privileges to US aircraft transporting nuclear weapons. In effect they are asking only for limited reciprocity in this case, and refusal on our part might endanger our own future arrangements with the UK.
Legal liability for any damage caused by the British overflights would be governed by the terms of the NATO Status of Forces Agreement,2 which is the basis on which the British have sanctioned US overflights and staging of nuclear weapons flights in and through the UK.
No publicity would be planned for these flights, but contingency press materials would be prepared for use in the event of a leak of information.
At present State, Defense, and the AEC are asking only for your preliminary approval so that they can proceed to consult with the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and with the Leadership of the House and Senate. After those consultations, if you give your permission, [Page 965] State will report the Congressional reaction to you and request a final decision.
I believe that you should grant preliminary approval and authorize Congressional consultations.
That you authorize Congressional consultations on, and give your preliminary approval for, British nuclear overflights of US territory in connection with the British withdrawal from Singapore.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 726, Country Files—Europe, United Kingdom, Vol. II. Top Secret; Formerly Restricted Data. The tabs are not printed.↩
- For the text of this agreement, signed in Ottawa, September 20, 1951, see 5 UST 870.↩
- Nixon initialed this option and dated it “7/1.” In an April 18, 1970, memorandum to Kissinger, Sonnenfeldt reported that following congressional consultations, the British Government was notified of the President’s approval. Subsequently the British Government requested a delay in beginning the overflights, which was granted by the NSC on advice from the Department of State without recourse to the President. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 726, Country Files—Europe, United Kingdom, Vol. II)↩