Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report

5  Current and future threats

85. The public debate about the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent must take into account:

  • the nature of the threats facing the UK;
  • how those threats could evolve over the lifetime of any potential Trident successor system; and
  • in what ways retention of a strategic nuclear deterrent might assist the UK in addressing those threats.

The current threat

86. Dr Kate Hudson, of the Campaign for Nuclear Deterrent, told us that "we currently face no nuclear threat, and there is no imminent danger of such a threat emerging".[72] Dr Jeremy Stocker, of the Centre for Disarmament and International Security Studies, told us that, with the removal of the Soviet threat, "Britain's security is today assured to a degree probably unprecedented in its history, despite current concerns over terrorism".[73] On that basis, Professor William Walker, of St. Andrew's University, argued that:

    it would be hard to justify the retention of a nuclear force on strategic military grounds alone. Among the eight or nine nuclear armed states, with the possible exception of France, the UK arguably has least cause for concern about future military attack from a well armed foe. This situation seems likely to continue, given the UK's geographical position on the safe fringe of a relatively stable continent.[74]

87. This view, shared by several witnesses to our inquiry, echoes the conclusions of the Strategic Defence Review, which stated that "there is today no direct military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe. Nor do we foresee the re-emergence of such a threat".[75]

88. The most pressing threat currently facing the UK is that of international terrorism. Witnesses to our inquiry overwhelmingly argued that the strategic nuclear deterrent could serve no useful or practical purpose in countering this kind of threat.

89. Dan Plesch argued that the notion of using nuclear weapons against terrorists was "entirely unrealistic".[76] Sir Michael Quinlan, a former Permanent Under Secretary at the MoD, told us that "I myself do not believe that the terrorist case plays any large part in whatever case there is for staying in this business".[77]

90. Michael Codner, of RUSI, argued that the only conceivable role for the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent in dealing with terrorism would be in deterring states from sponsoring and harbouring terrorists; "there is clearly an option…for nuclear deterrence against a state which is clearly giving [such] support".[78] Dr Lee Willett, of RUSI, agreed that "it would be very hard for a non-state actor to develop its own nuclear weapons capability. It would have to get it from somewhere, and that somewhere would have to be a state".[79] Professor Gray, of the University of Reading, too saw a role for the nuclear deterrent in this situation; "terrorists require support, and, to the degree that they require state support, the states that support them are capable of being deterred".[80]

91. Professor Gregory, of the University of Bradford, told us that he had "not seen any credible analysis where anyone in France or here or in the United States has come up with a way of using nuclear weapons to deter terrorists directly". Nuclear weapons, he argued, were essentially about states; "the analysis I have seen is about deterring state sponsors of terrorism—assuming you can make that jump".[81]

92. Professor Gray disagreed and suggested that, in addition to their utility as a deterrence against state sponsors of terrorism, nuclear weapons could be used against terrorists themselves. He argued:

    I certainly would not want terrorists and those who support them to say they can use weapons of mass destruction against Britain and we will do our best with conventional weapons to bring the roof down on their heads. I would like them to know that they are messing with a nuclear power.[82]

In arguing this case, Professor Gray appeared to be a lone voice. Other witnesses to our inquiry did not share his analysis.

93. Dr Bruno Tertrais, of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, argued that the nuclear deterrent was only of "partial relevance" in dealing with terrorism:

    Most of the defence and fight against international terrorism has nothing to do with Western nuclear deterrence, British, French, American or otherwise. This would be relevant only in the extreme scenario where a state deliberately sponsored a terrorist group and asked it to act on its behalf. If one of our Governments had incontrovertible evidence that a terrorist act was being sponsored by another state's Government and that it would be of such magnitude that it could enter the realm of our vital interests in such a case there would be a role for nuclear deterrence.[83]

94. Malcolm Savidge, of the Oxford Research Group, contested the notion that nuclear deterrence could be even partially relevant in dealing with terrorism, arguing that:

    it would be the fanatical, absolutist organisations like Aum Shinrikyo or al-Qaeda which would have the objective of nuclear terrorism. It is, surely, very unlikely that they would be sufficiently closely identified with a particular state that it would be meaningful to try to use nuclear deterrence. Even with the identification that one had with, say, al-Qaeda and the state of Afghanistan, there was never a thought of nuking Kabul…I find that an improbable scenario.[84]

95. Witnesses to our inquiry did not believe that the UK currently faced a direct or impending military threat from any of the established nuclear weapons states, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, or, of course, from France or the United States.

Future threats

96. There are difficulties inherent in anticipating future threats to the security of the UK. It is not possible to predict accurately the nature of the future strategic international environment and to identify with any certainty the threats the UK is likely to face.

97. In considering the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent, Michael Codner told us that "we have to look into the longer term and to a very cloudy future, and one in which things could change very substantially".[85] "No prudent statesman," we heard, "would assume the indefinite continuation of [the current relatively benevolent] condition". Dr Lee Willett told us that recent history is "littered with strategic shocks, things that we had not expected". The point about the nuclear deterrent, Dr Willett stressed, is that it "is there as a hedge, just-in-case capability, should threats that require such a response come to pass".[86] Professor Colin Gray concurred with this analysis, emphasising that "the future is deeply uncertain…. There are no experts on the unknowable future. The first rule of statecraft is prudence, do not take avoidable risks".[87] He continued, "in 2006, we can no more predict the strategic history of the 21st Century, than our predecessors in 1906 could predict what the 20th Century would bring".[88]

98. Professor Gray argued that that although Russia did not, at present, pose a direct military threat to the security of the UK, its future political direction was deeply uncertain. Russia, he argued, accords top priority in its defence policy to modernising its nuclear weapons and has the lowest threshold for nuclear use of any country's nuclear doctrine. He further argued that Russia was deeply dissatisfied with its current situation, that it has unsatisfactory relations on most of its borders, that it was not reconciled to the loss of the Baltics, to the loss of the Ukraine or to what had occurred in the Caucuses. NATO was also pushing against its boundaries, which Russian policymakers intently disliked. On this basis, Professor Gray argued that "the notion that Russia was…. yesterday's problem is…. an unjustifiably optimistic assumption".[89] Other witnesses, however, believed that Professor Gray's view was unduly pessimistic.

99. Professor Simpson, of the University of Southampton, asserted that China did not, at present, represent a serious military threat to the security of the UK and was unlikely to do so in the future. Its main capability was short-range missiles which were aimed primarily at Taiwan. Simpson pointed out that China had never engaged in an arms race with any other nation and that it was not driven to acquire additional nuclear weapons because of specific concerns about other states; "they seem to want a capability but do not want to go beyond that".[90]

100. We were told that, in future, there could be several additional nuclear powers, and that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was currently under enormous pressure. David Broucher, a former Head of the UK Delegation to the UN Disarmament Conference, told us that "confidence in [the] treaty is flagging":

    If the Non-Proliferation Treaty were to break down, and if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, I think it is difficult at this stage to be precise about which countries might follow suit but there is a danger that you would see several countries considering the nuclear option…. there are at least 15, perhaps more, countries in the world that could develop a nuclear weapon quite rapidly if they were to take the decision to do so.[91]

101. The future of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is likely to have a significant impact on the course of nuclear proliferation in the coming decades. If the authority of the Treaty does not recover, there is a danger that a number of states could develop a nuclear weapons capability in a relatively short timeframe. It could be argued that UK decisions on the future of its Trident deterrent could affect the authority of the Treaty. Witnesses to our inquiry have questioned the legality of replacing the Trident system under the terms of Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We have not sought to address these concerns in this first report, which focuses on the strategic context and timetable for decision-making.

102. Sir Michael Quinlan told us that, ultimately, the strategic nuclear deterrent was an insurance policy against the unknowable future. In considering the value of any insurance policy, he argued, one had to undertake a cost-benefit analysis. It would be possible, he believed, to design and build a nuclear deterrent which was capable of countering most conceivable threats to the security of the UK, but it would come at a significant price. A lower level of insurance would protect against a narrower range of threats for a lower price. According to Sir Michael, when looking at future threats, policymakers would have to weigh the likely threats against the available resources:

    Life does not come with 100 per cent certainties in either direction, but insurance policies are related to things that may or may not happen. The hard question is: how much is it worth? I am not an absolutist on this question at all. I would want to know how much it is going to cost.

103. We call upon the MoD to consider publicly the threats the UK faces today and how those threats may evolve in the future. Such a threat assessment will shape any decision on the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent. We accept that future threats are unknowable, but, clearly, a world in which nuclear proliferation had taken hold would create deep uncertainties in international relations. For this reason, the UK may wish to retain a strategic nuclear capability as a guard against the unknown. If the MoD believes in the value of the nuclear deterrent as an insurance policy, rather than in response to any specific threat, we believe it is important to say clearly that is the reason for needing the deterrent.

72   Ev 56 Back

73   Ev 101 Back

74   Ev 133 Back

75   Ministry of Defence, The Strategic Defence Review, Cm 3999, July 1998, p 17 Back

76   Q 32 [Mr Plesch] Back

77   Q 34 Back

78   Q 32 [Mr Codner] Back

79   Q 32 [Dr Willett] Back

80   Q 97 Back

81   Q 96 Back

82   Q 98 Back

83   Q 194 [Dr Tertrais] Back

84   Q 194 [Mr Savidge] Back

85   Q 9 [Mr Codner] Back

86   Q 18 [Dr Willett] Back

87   Ev 81 Back

88   Ibid. Back

89   Q 73 Back

90   Q 72 Back

91   Q 75 Back

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Prepared 30 June 2006