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17 March 2021

From the NS archive: At home with the bomb

12 May 1989: How plans made in Washington and Whitehall are destroying village life in Britain.

By Joan Smith

In 1961 the then US president John F Kennedy introduced a “flexible response” strategy, which replaced the absolute dichotomy of peace or total nuclear war that “massive retaliation” had created. In 1989, the journalist, novelist and human rights activist Joan Smith, then a regular NS contributor, wrote about what this new doctrine meant in action. Here she explains how plans made in Washington and Whitehall to undermine the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty were destroying village life in Britain, close to where she lived in the village of Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire. US Air Force planes based at Upper Heyford had suddenly changed course and villagers, their lives dramatically affected, had not been given an explanation. “Can our little patch of Oxfordshire,” Smith asks, “become a focus of national outrage at this bar-faced attempt to circumvent the treaty and sabotage the chances of a nuclear-free Europe?”


Last June the lives of people living near the US Air Force (USAF) base at Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, changed dramatically. Previously, jet aircraft from the base had veered right immediately after take-off so as to avoid flying directly over any of the villages that lie within a mile or two of the perimeter fence.

Now, as the commander had brusquely announced, a few days before, the planes roared skywards in a straight line: sometimes directly over the village of Steeple Aston (where I live), at the western end of the runway; sometimes over Ardley-with-Fewcott, to the east. There was no consultation and no chance of an appeal.

The first jets screamed low over Steeple Aston on 1 June, shaking walls and shattering greenhouses. Riding lessons for disabled children at the local stables were postponed indefinitely, as horses were rearing and bolting at the noise. At a packed meeting in the village hall that weekend, residents who had hitherto been staunch supporters of the USAF voiced their anger at the suddenness of the decision, and the lack of any plausible explanation.

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The reasons given for the change – that the aircraft were 19 years old and lacked thrust, that their loads were heavier, and that the pilots were inexperienced – were neither comforting nor convincing. Inhabitants of Steeple Aston and Ardley, as well as other villages suddenly affected by noise pollution, live in constant fear of a crash. Two aircraft have crashed in recent history – in 1953 and 1969 – and last week an F-111 experienced engine trouble immediately after take-off, vividly reviving that fear. It shut down an engine, circled wide round Milton Keynes, and ditched 800 gallons of aviation fuel which caught fire, making a huge fireball in the sky.

For a year now, local people have pressed the authorities in Britain and the US for further details of how and why the original decision had been made. But the more questions we asked, the harder it became to make sense of the official version.

A letter to President Reagan in Washington elicited the information from the Department of the Air Force that the British had proposed the change in the flight path; a letter from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in Whitehall put the blame squarely on the Americans.

Nor was there any agreement on how dangerous the previous take-off procedure had been. The MOD told one villager that “the old patterns were not unsafe – we changed them before matters got to that stage”; another MOD official wrote that “the safety considerations involved meant that it was necessary to introduce the changes without delay”.

Then a fascinating new titbit of information appeared. The issue of Jane’s Defence Weekly for 2 July 1988 reported that the USAF was planning to send an extra 51 F-111 aircraft to Britain. At present, the base has 72 F-111E fighter bombers, which carry free-fall nuclear bombs, and 12 EF-111A electronic jamming planes. The aircraft mentioned in Jane’s were an entirely new breed: F-111Gs equipped with “first-strike” missiles, both AGM-69A Short Range Attack Missiles (SRAMs) and Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs). According to Jane’s, General William Kirk, then Commander-in-Chief of the USAF in Europe, said “that the supersonic bombers and their cruise missiles would compensate in part for the firepower lost under the new US/Soviet INF treaty”.

The Ministry of Defence flatly denied the report. But villagers in north Oxfordshire were sceptical. We began to wonder if there was some connection between General Kirk’s indiscreet remarks and the simultaneous decision to alter the flight path. An F-111 carrying air-launched missiles would have a considerably heavier payload than one armed with free-fall bombs, and probably could not make the sharp manoeuvres required to avoid flying over the villages near the base.

The immediate suspicion, as local people endured dozens of ear-shattering flights over their homes – an astonishing 123 of them in a single day last July – was that the change had been introduced for reasons quite different from those stated. The villages formed defence campaigns, and the MOD, still unable to offer a convincing explanation for a decision that had made intolerable the lives of several thousand people, promised to look into the cost of realigning the runway at Upper Heyford to divert aircraft away from populated areas.

Meanwhile, and with very little publicity, the USAF began work at the end of last year on the first of the 51 aircraft mentioned by General Kirk. The planes, FB-111As, are currently stationed at Pease air base, New Hampshire and Plattsburgh, New York. Once they have been converted to carry air-launched missiles, they will be re-designated F-111Gs.

A programme has been set up to manage the alterations by the USAF’s Air Logistics Center in Sacramento, California. According to another report in Jane’s, the programme will last until 1994. The planes will be converted at a rate of 12 a year. The first two were ready this January, and Jane’s has suggested that they will initially be armed with SRAMs. Each plane can carry four missiles – a total of 204 if all 51 aircraft are eventually transferred to Britain – and will be able to strike targets deep inside the Soviet Union. The planes may also be candidates for an advanced version of the ALCM in future years.

Events now began to pick up pace. Last month, representatives of the villages close to Upper Heyford were summoned to a meeting at the base with the junior defence minister, Michael Neubert.

The message Neubert brought was stark: any attempt to realign the runway would cost around £300m, and was therefore out of the question. The inhabitants of Steeple Aston would simply have to put up with the noise; but 47 houses in Ardley-with-Fewcott, those worst affected and amounting to a quarter of the properties in the village, would be bought out by the MOD and filled with American personnel from Upper Heyford. The area to be bought up includes the shop, the pub and the garage – the heart of the village, in fact.

Typical of those affected is the Ardley subpost-mistress, Joan Slade, who has run the village shop for the past 18 years. She doesn’t want to sell to the MOD, but is afraid that her business will be ruined as people are driven from the village by the noise. She told a local paper: “I came through the war and worked for the rest of my life to make something for my family, and then it’s all taken away with the stroke of a pen at the Ministry of Defence.”

Neubert was pressed by angry villagers from Steeple Aston on the vital question: were more planes to be transferred from the US to Upper Heyford? His reply was a clear negative. “At this point there are no such plans before the government to increase activity here,” he said – though he added that of course he could not give an absolute guarantee that there would be no change in the future.

It was a wise caveat. The very next day, at a press briefing after a two-day session of the Nato Nuclear Planning Group in Brussels, it was confirmed that the Americans had made a request to station extra F-111s in Britain. News leaked out from the closed session that Britain appeared to be willing to take the jets.

At the same time a pressure group, the British-American Security Information Council, released details of US Congress budget documents which showed that planning for new facilities in support of the F -111 Gs at Upper Heyford has already begun.

The Military Construction Appropriations budget submitted to Congress includes a request from the USAF for various improvements at Upper Heyford and says that “without the project, the existing facility will be inadequate to support the new mission aircraft”. The work includes a 45 per cent increase in the size of the avionics maintenance shop, an additional 15,000 square feet of jet maintenance space, and a 3,500 square feet addition to an existing building to house a flight simulator.

In Britain, the armed forces minister, Archie Hamilton, dismissed these developments in a written parliamentary answer as “preliminary design work”. He admitted that neither Congress nor the British government had approved the new facilities at Upper Heyford, but said that design work had been commissioned from the Property Services Agency, which acts for the MOD, “in accordance with normal US forward planning procedures”.

He did not explain how this statement tallied with the fact that, for the past 10 months, he and his colleagues had consistently denied any knowledge of American plans to expand Upper Heyford.

Whatever the MOD says, American intentions are clear. An official announcement that Britain is to take the extra planes is unlikely to emerge from the Nato summit at the end of this month, if only because even the British government recognises the political risk of publicly welcoming a huge number of new short-range missiles at a time when another NATO member, the West German government, has found popular support for its opposition to them.

In North Oxfordshire, some of the people who suddenly find themselves on the front line of the argument about Nato “modernisation” met last week to consider their next move. They have an unexpected ally in their MP, the Conservative Tony Baldry, who has called on the Defence Secretary to refuse any request from the US government for more planes at Upper Heyford and – even more startlingly – to consider shutting down the base altogether.

Baldry’s opposition is, of course, on environmental rather than political grounds; he has come to doubt whether an area of fast-growing population can accommodate a military installation on the scale of Upper Heyford. Still, it isn’t every day that a Tory MP calls for the closure of an American base in Britain. His stance is an indicator of the broad local coalition that is forming to oppose not just the changed flightpath but the prospect of yet more planes being transferred here.

No doubt the British government is hoping that this coalition will attract little interest or support from further afield. Ministers may present it as the whingeing of a few hundred Nimbys who are worried by the fall in local property prices. But the central issue could hardly be less parochial.

The arrival of 51 converted F-111s at Upper Heyford, each capable of carrying four short-range or cruise missiles, would mean the stationing of almost twice as many nuclear missiles here as are being removed under the INF agreement.

Can our little patch of Oxfordshire become a focus of national outrage at this bare-faced attempt to circumvent the treaty and sabotage the chances of a nuclear-free Europe? Or, to put it another way: will Upper Heyford be the next Greenham?­

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 

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