Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1-19)


14 MARCH 2006

  Q1 Chairman: I would like to begin by welcoming everyone to this first evidence-taking session on the Strategic Nuclear Deterrent. I would like to set the context in which we are doing this. There will be a series of inquiries that this Committee will be doing over the lifetime of this Parliament into the Strategic Nuclear Deterrent. This is not intended to be an exhaustive coverage of everything. There will be further inquiries in due course. The first one is intended to cover the strategic context within which decisions on the future of the nuclear deterrent will be made. It is not going to be easy this morning. We have an unusually large panel, amongst which, as amongst the Committee, there will be disagreement, so I will need the assistance of both the Committee and of the panel to keep moving things on, please. We have two hours to get through a lot of very difficult and very deep questions. I am grateful to many of the witnesses and those outside the Committee for providing most helpful memoranda in advance, but I should be particularly grateful if members of the Committee and members of the panel could be as short as possible. Please do not feel that it is necessary to answer each question. Certainly do not feel it is necessary to answer simply in order to agree with something that has been said before. If you feel a gloss needs to be added, I will try to get you in but we need to move on very rapidly through a lot of difficult questions. I would like to begin, if I may, by welcoming the witnesses very much to the evidence session. I am most grateful to you for coming. I wonder whether I could begin by going into the factual background in relation to the purpose of the deterrent, how the Ministry of Defence might explain it, and some of the technical details of it. I would like, Sir Michael, to begin with you. Could you possibly explain to us what the purpose of the UK's existing nuclear strategic deterrent is, what is the rationale behind it and how would the Ministry of Defence explain its purpose?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I should stress, of course, that I retired from the Ministry of Defence 14 years ago. I do not now speak for them in any way. The broad rationale was that the strategic nuclear capability was part of the total capability which we possessed primarily for the prevention of war, and it was designed to convey to any potential adversary that attack on us, especially if it were persisted in beyond the levels with which our conventional forces could cope, might in the extreme bring down upon them nuclear action. That is the essence of what we were trying to convey by the possession of these things. The context originally, at the time when the present force was ordered, was that of the Cold War. It has now of course changed. The essential concept is as I describe, I believe, still.

  Q2  Chairman: Was it aimed at particular players or was it a general deterrent?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: At that time, it was clearly directed to a Soviet Union whose power was very large, which was forward-deployed in Europe, and whose ideology and attitudes were such that we thought we could not entirely trust them not to have disagreeable designs to our detriment. That is no longer the case. It seems to me that, to the extent that there is a case now, it is a case, like that for most of our armed forces, simply addressed "to whom it may concern".

  Chairman: I will move on to the status of the Trident programme.

  Q3  Mr Crausby: Could I begin by asking you to summarise the technical capabilities of Trident and set out for us, and indeed for the record, how the system operates.

  Dr Willett: As is stated in the public record, we have four Vanguard-class Trident submarines. They have the potential to carry 16 Trident D5 ballistic missiles per boat, although, as the MoD have stated in the Defence Review papers, it is not necessarily the case that all boats go to sea with their maximum outload of missiles all the time, and each missile has a set number of warheads, UK-designed and built warheads. The point about the warheads, of course, is that the numbers are classified, both in terms of the numbers in the inventory and the numbers that are allocated per missile, but the UK MoD has stated on some occasions in the past that some boats go to sea with some missiles that have single warheads, others that have more, but no precise details of the numbers. Of course, there is some public debate about what the yield of the warheads is as well, and the warheads are regarded as having a variable yield, but the precise nature, once again, according to my records, is classified.

  Q4  Mr Crausby: The 1998 Strategic Defence Review described Trident as a "credible minimum deterrent." Is that accurate? Is it a credible minimum deterrent?

  Dr Willett: The key point about this debate we are having today, and I think you have started it in the right way, is to start by asking the question why we need it. That is the point: is it credible? Why do we need it? What are the threats? Is it credible in deterring those threats? The issue about deterrence is that, obviously, you need to understand who your adversaries are and what you need to hold at risk with those potential adversaries to deter them. There are those who argue that, in the current climate, there are no obvious threats, but the point is, we have to look at what the next 50 years will hold, and in terms of credibility, it is more an issue really of we just do not know what the future will hold. This system is there as a deterrent to high-end threats to the survivability of the nation. You make the point about the force levels and the minimum deterrent. One might argue that, with the world changing as it is, perhaps in the debate about replacing Trident, we could at least consider the possibility that the UK might wish to reduce what it has deployed in its inventory, whether that be numbers of warheads or numbers of missiles, while still retaining what is a credible and flexible capability.

  Chairman: Dr Willett, you have said that this is the right way to begin the debate, and I want to pick up that point. This Committee will not, of course, be making any decisions about the strategic nuclear deterrent. What we will be doing is informing the debate. We will not be coming to any conclusions as to whether we should or should not replace the strategic nuclear deterrent. We consider that we are the right people to inform and begin and help with that debate, so I am most grateful to you for bringing that point out.

  Q5  John Smith: I have a supplementary on the technical status of Trident. Are we right to believe that, in the absence of an obvious threat, the Trident system is currently one, de-targeted, and two, its standard of readiness has been greatly reduced?

  Dr Willett: That is correct. That is stated in the Strategic Defence Review and subsequent government documentation, that the missiles are de-targeted and that the readiness of the boats has been reduced to a matter of days rather than the hours that it was previously.

  Q6  John Smith: What are the implications of that, if any?

  Dr Willett: The point, I think, is that we stepped away from the targeting of what was then the obvious threat, the Soviet Union, and what we have now is the boats at sea, in the continuous-at-sea deterrent cycle, still ready to be able to do what they have to do if needed, but we still have boats at a certain notice to fire, and the ability to work up that capability in the light of the likely lead times we may have on any perceptions of potential threats. So the flexibility to be able to react is still there.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: They were held during the Cold War at 15 minutes' readiness to fire, because they were our last resort insurance against the hypothesis, remote though it might seem, of a bolt from the blue by an immensely powerful superpower. That hypothesis no longer has to be seriously entertained, and therefore they are held in a much more relaxed condition, which, of course, if we got into a serious crisis, could be raised again.

  Dr Johnson: I just want to make a clarification that both the de-targeting and the reduced notice to fire are operational. In terms of the mechanics of the Trident fleet, when the submarine goes out, it would in fact mechanically be able to be fired at any time. So we are not talking about de-alerting. The warheads are on the missiles and the decision both to re-target and to greatly shorten the notice to fire could be made simply by both political decision and computer operation, and the estimates are that that could be made in 10-15 minutes.

  Q7  Mr Hancock: Can I ask a question about the change over the last 10 years of the missile's capability and its ability to be re-directed from a blanket target like the Soviet Union to a more specific target, and the reduction in the actual capability of individual warheads being reduced to an extent that they become a useful tool if they were deployed in being more of a specifically targeted weapon. Is there any evidence to support the view that Trident has aged well, in the sense that it is a vehicle that can be changed to suit the change in the world's situation, or is it still the same weapon it was 15 years ago?

  Mr Plesch: From its own perspective, the Government has made various changes—successive governments—in terms of developing what they call a sub-strategic weapon with a smaller warhead, and both in the SDR and in the New Chapter there are discussions for the use of the weapon in circumstances other than retaliation if this country were destroyed, which I think is the public understanding and rationale for the weapon. If I might make one other point concerning the future of the credibility, I think the public understanding is that we have this if ever again we faced 1940. There is, I think, a strong sense in this country, going back almost to Trafalgar and the Armada, in our culture that we have to have something for that contingency. My real concern is that people do not understand that if we were in a situation—albeit this is highly unlikely and highly undesirable—as in 1940, where the United States was neutral, or in 1956, when the United States had a very contrary position, then the United States would have every ability, in the short and particularly in the longer term, to prevent the system from being used because of our relationship.

  Q8  Chairman: That is your 1940 test in your memorandum.

  Mr Plesch: Yes, and I think that is a very severe problem when we look at the 50-year rationale, because if the basic rationale is if something nasty turns up, we need it, the nastiest thing that can turn up for this country is to fall out with the United States in some unforeseen manner.

  Q9  Mr Jones: Can I now turn to the threat? Sir Michael made it quite clear what Trident was procured for in terms of the Cold War threat, and clearly that threat is not there now. Can I ask you to comment in terms of what you perceive as the actual threat that Trident deters now?

  Mr Codner: I think that is a very difficult question. Clearly, there is the potential for emergent nuclear powers which may be hostile to the United Kingdom to develop the capability. At present, there is no very obvious target for our deterrent. However, if we are looking at replacing the system, we have to look into the longer term and to a very cloudy future, and one in which things could change very substantially. There are some specific issues of deterrence against some of the most immediate threats, like the terrorist threat, et cetera, where it is very unclear how a nuclear deterrent could be effective even against a terrorist threat with nuclear capability, the suitcase scenario. However, one could create arguments to say that the deterrent was relevant against nations which may be supporting that sort of activity. My own view is that when we are coming to judge what the deterrent is for as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, obviously, these issues are relevant but they are probably not the central issue.

  Dr Willett: May I just add a bit of gloss to that? As you say, the whole point about Trident is that it has never been designed to deal with all the range of threats. It was always designed to deter threats to the high-end survivability of the nation. Deterrence as an issue for the UK is about a broad package of options, political, conventional military, strategic nuclear, so the Trident system that currently supports the strategic nuclear deterrent was only ever about deterring a certain kind of threat. While that threat may not include 7-7 tube bombers, as Michael pointed out, the key point in this is that we are talking about the 2020-50 time frame, and it is the "just in case" against what we just do not know.

  Dr Johnson: I would like to comment on that, because I agree with Dr Willett that Trident was not intended for a broad range of security threats and yet, if we actually project forward for the next 20-25 years, we see a very broad range of security threats, including things like environmental degradation and climate change and depletion of resources, which are both threats to our security and will generate more traditional views of security threats in terms of mass population movement. I list a whole range of them, of which the only conceivable deterrent role possibly played by nuclear weapons at all, whether Trident, which is an extremely clumsy instrument in these days, or any other, would be war between stable, rationally governed nation states. We have to look at the broader elements of deterrence, which do not necessarily require a nuclear element at all. Other countries have deterrents that are well in place, that are this panoply of other measures, and the problem with constantly calling nuclear weapons a nuclear deterrent is that you end up with a tautology: our deterrence deters. That, I think, is lazy thinking because it prevents people thinking through what actually is the role that nuclear weapons play in that range of deterrence tools and in what ways maintaining nuclear weapons would actually diminish the usefulness and roles of some of those other tools.

  Q10  Mr Jones: Can I throw in from Mr Codner's memorandum[1] to us a point I actually agree with: the proposal that retention of a deterrent seems to support is that UK has an influence, indirect or on its wider security environment, because it retains a nuclear deterrent. Is that what you are saying? Would you agree that actually having nuclear weapons not only gives you a seat at the table but also paints a broader security picture that somehow you are a senior power which you could not do if you just had conventional weapons?

  Dr Johnson: I think that was largely true in the Cold War. It was certainly perceived to be the truth in the Cold War. I think it is less and less true now. There is a diminishing status value as more and more states seek to acquire nuclear weapons and there is actually a diminishing security value.

  Q11  Chairman: We will come on to that issue later on. I want to bring in Mr Plesch and Dr Willett briefly on these questions.

  Mr Plesch: I think one of the problems we face because of our relationship with the United States is that while a great many countries around the world see multilateral arms control as something which was important to move much faster on with the Soviet Union out of the way, we are now in a position where, really for the first time, we are pursuing a policy which is nuclear weapons without arms control. That is a key issue, and indeed, frankly, without disarmament, and if one addresses the question of status, a great many countries around the world that we rarely listen to, South Africa for example, are adamant that the connection between possession of nuclear weapons by the big countries and the desire for nuclear weapons by those we are concerned about proliferating, is in fact critical. The powers with weapons undoubtedly deny that, but the rest o f the world argues it.

  Q12  Chairman: Yes, that is a proliferation issue rather than a deterrence issue.

  Mr Plesch: It is a question of whether you can have your cake and eat it.

  Dr Willett: I wanted to follow up on a couple of Dan's points and Dr Johnson's as well. With the panoply of other issues that there are facing the world, again, deterrence is very specific in what it is trying to do, and its particular role in certain threats that threaten the UK and global security as a whole. The point is that the proliferation of nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, nuclear technologies is only going in one direction and that is up—proliferation can only go one way, I apologise, but the way that we are moving is only in the way of proliferating. There are those that argue that as many as 35 nations now have the know-how to do this. There are those that are declared, those that are suspected and those that may well have this capability in a very short space of time. So the number is growing, and we do not know what the future will hold. While others have nuclear weapons, the only thing, in my humble opinion, that can deter a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. Dan made a very good point about arms control too. I think it is very valid. What the UK should pursue is a dual-track approach. We need to look at the arms control issue again at a multilateral level. The NPT faltered but the nuclear powers and others of this world should be getting round the table to talk about these things. Perhaps, as I said previously, the UK could look at options for reducing its own stockpiles if it decides to extend and replace the current system. So there are options indeed, yes, for moving the disarmament debate forward, but it needs to happen at a multilateral level, and that is not happening at the moment. We cannot risk living in a Utopian world where we hope these things might happen. We should try to make them happen but, at the same time, we need the deterrent there as an insurance policy just in case.

  Q13  Chairman: Sir Michael, you indicated a little earlier that you would like to say something.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Could I make three very quick points. Firstly, deterrence is an extremely broad concept. It refers to a whole range of instruments, some of which may not even be military. We may be trying to discourage Iran by economic or political pressure, for example. That is deterrence. I never liked the phrase "the deterrent", as though it meant just this. This is one of many instruments. Secondly, reference has been made to the seat at the table argument. I personally do not think there is value in that. I do not like that argument. I think one needs much more solid reasons than prestige and status. Thirdly, could I just lodge the fact that Mr Plesch and I will be found to have different views on independence. No doubt you will be exploring that a little later.

  Chairman: We will, and no doubt we will discover exactly that.

  Q14  Mr Jenkins: I want to just ask you a few simple questions from a simple back-bencher here. When we look at the technical capabilities of Trident, I understand that in the Cold War we could have launched massive retaliation, but we are not in that scenario now. What would happen if one of our naval patrols suddenly got a message that we need to take out one particular location; we cannot get a conventional bomber there to take it out; we do not have the bombs and we need to take that one out? When you fire a missile with multiple warheads, can you activate one warhead, so that, say, if you have 10 in the missile, would the one warhead go off and the other nine fall to the ground? When I wanted to activate the missile, how would I? If I am sailing round the Indian Ocean and it is decided there is a target over there, how would I know how to aim the missile at that target? Would I rely upon satellite technology? Would I rely upon the American satellite technology? Would the new Galileo European satellite technology give us a back-up in that respect? Or does the missile itself have its own device; you can send it off and it knows exactly where it is going?

  Mr Plesch: The fire control targeting system computer software and satellites are all American-derived. The Government has stated formally and informally, I think, that some of the missiles have just one warhead on, and there has been some discussion that these could be as small as only 300 tonnes of TNT, 0.3 of a kilotonne, and the system is designed to have an accuracy within a few metres—not, I think, as good as GPS, which the Americans now have, but it was originally designed to be able to attack Soviet missile silos, so it was always designed to be highly accurate, and of course, it is very fast: less than half an hour from launch to target.

  Q15  Mr Jenkins: So the missile itself, when it is fired, relies upon nothing else outside itself? There is no satellite indicator to where it is going, et cetera? It relies upon nothing apart from what is in the head of the missile?

  Dr Willett: My understanding is that the missile is a totally self-contained package that has an inertial guidance system that takes it to a point in space, and the ballistic trajectory then takes it to the latitudinal and longitudinal point on the target. It does not, in my understanding, rely on external guidance systems such as American satellites that have been mentioned.

  Q16  Chairman: Sir Michael, I noticed you reacting a bit about the American software. We will come on to the independence issue in a few minutes. Did you want to add something, Dr Johnson?

  Dr Johnson: Mr Plesch said that it is an American guidance system, I agree, but my understanding is in fact that that guidance system relies also on the GPS system, and because the guidance system is American, I do not think it would be adaptable to Galileo, even if Galileo was fully working. The US was very unhappy about the Galileo system precisely because it offered a European alternative potentially to GPS in the future[2]

  Q17 Chairman: We have been told that Galileo does not have a military application.

  Dr Johnson: We have been told.

  Q18  John Smith: I just want to explore the exact nature of the current military threats that this country faces in your expert opinion. The threat scenario is usually identified as a combination of capability that exists and intent. What, in your view, Dr Willett, are the current military threats to this country?

  Dr Willett: That is obviously a very open-ended question. I do not want to belittle it by coming back with the point that we just do not know, but it is worth looking back at recent history to show that it is littered with strategic shocks, things that we had not expected: the Falkland Islands, the first Gulf War, 9-11, 7-7. All of them were things that we had not predicted, so to try and make a point about what are the military threats, one could argue that it is as long as a piece of string; it depends on the person's own view. The point is that this particular debate is not talking about the current military threat; it is talking about threats in the 2020-50 time frame. We cannot begin to try and predict what will be round the corner in that time frame. It is the argument about the insurance policy, as always. It is there as a hedge, just-in-case, capability, should threats that require such a response come to pass.

  Mr Codner: As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, geographically, clearly, where it is in the Atlantic in the current environment, it is in a pretty safe place. The biggest threat directly to the United Kingdom is probably asymmetric response to activities elsewhere, if you call them responses to those activities, terrorist attack, et cetera, to the United Kingdom itself. There is one scenario where you could say the British Government has an obligation as opposed to a choice to engage overseas, and that would be the rescue of non-combatant British personnel and perhaps Europeans in some situation where there was a revolution or whatever. Supporting what Dr Willett said, we are looking into the longer term and there is a presumption, I think, in many places that we are not going to face inter-state war in the old-fashioned sense any more. Sir Rupert Smith's book makes this point, but there are other books by equally distinguished people in different areas, such as Colin Gray, who make the point that we cannot dismiss this sort of scenario in the longer term.

  Q19  Chairman: When you said that the greatest threat that we faced was a terrorist incident, would you say that the coming together of a terrorist incident and weapons of mass destruction was the greatest threat that this country is likely to face at the moment?

  Mr Codner: It is certainly not the most probable threat. The most immediate threat, you could argue, is terrorist attack. The most probable threat is not a nuclear-armed terrorist. There is that possibility, and it would be pretty horrific.

  Dr Johnson: I would like to comment that we should not forget that military threats are security challenges that were ignored or were not adequately dealt with at a much earlier stage, so when we think about the future, we must not assume that the choice that we make now does not have a range of other kinds of consequences in terms of opportunity costs for taking steps that would reduce what we see as the foreseeable security challenges and military threats in the future.

  Mr Plesch: I broadly agree with my fellow panellists but I think there is one critical point about capability and not intention that we are in grave danger of overlooking, and that is that neither the Russians nor the Americans have taken their strategic nuclear forces off a high alert status, able to fire thousands of weapons still in under an hour. There has been considerable political and NGO discussion in the United States and in Russia on this point, but it has largely been overlooked. The point about de-targeting, which was issued after the Cold War, has been found to be largely rhetorical or entirely rhetorical and there is a very strong technical argument to support that, and grave concern among many experts that the hair trigger which people were so concerned about has not actually been removed.

1   Note: Ev 16. Back

2   Note by Witness: Dr Johnson has subsequently checked the above statement. While Dr Willett is correct that the Trident SLBMs were designed to use stellar navigation and can work without GPS, the US global positioning system, they have been modified and now make use of GPS to increase the precision of their targeting. Back

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