Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from the British Pugwash Group


  A.  The White Paper suggests that the UK needs a nuclear deterrent as an insurance. No one has been able to suggest a possible foe against whom such a deterrent would be necessary. Nuclear weapons could not be used against terrorists or a state housing terrorists.

  B.  The White Paper does not discuss the financial, political, security or opportunity costs of renewing or replacing the Trident system.

  C.  The White Paper asserts that the UK's policy with regard to nuclear weapons is legal. This claim is deeply flawed.

  D.  The claim that the Trident system is independent is not correct. It is heavily dependent on the USA.

  E.  The White Paper does not discuss other methods of improving our security, the effect of globalisation on the increasing interdependence between states, or the anomaly of two European states maintaining nuclear weapons when others do not.

  We are responding to the White Paper as the British arm of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs which, as you may know, played an active role in helping to formulate and work internationally on verification technology related to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other Treaties of the Cold War era (in part recognition of which Pugwash was awarded the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize). Our response is thus informed by experience of the bases of treaty creation and observance.

(A)   The Government's White Paper puts a case for maintaining our nuclear weapons on the assumption that deterrence is necessary to maintain the country's security. (2-2; 3-2)

  1.  There is no evidence that the Polaris or Trident systems have made any difference to our security in the past. (Executive Summary; 3-2).

  2.  The Government's case is that we need an insurance against a threatened nuclear attack on this country. To our knowledge, no politician or expert commentator has yet been able to suggest a hypothetical scenario in which a British Prime Minister would order use of such a weapon.

    (a)  The source of any such threat is a matter for speculation.

    (b)  No European country, other than France, has seen the need to develop its own "independent" nuclear weapons.

    (c)  Particular emphasis is laid on the possibility of an attack from a terrorist group assisted or harboured by another state (Box 3-1). The White Paper argues that "Any state that we can hold responsible for assisting a nuclear attack on our vital interests can expect that this would lead to a proportionate response." (3-11). But any nuclear attack on such a state would hardly be a proportional response. It would inevitably kill a large number of civilians, and it is absurd to suppose that any British Prime Minister would consider blasting a city because it was placed in a country that harboured terrorists.

(B)   The White Paper considers only the supposed benefits of our retaining nuclear weapons. But such a decision must involve balancing benefits against costs. The latter include


    (a)  The White Paper plays down the financial costs of retaining nuclear weapons by giving only an (admittedly at this stage inevitably) imprecise guess at the figure of £15-20 billion for procurement. This, however, does not include the annual running costs likely to be at least £1-2 billion over circa 30 years.

    (b)  The Government asserts that this will not be at "the expense of the conventional capabilities our armed services need" (Blair, Box 3-1:4), though such a claim rings hollow when one considers how the several Services are always in competition for funds and the reported shortages of equipment and accommodation suffered by our troops at the moment.

  It is scarcely necessary to list the many other contexts in which additional resources are needed, from the NHS to the Royal Mail.

  There is a possibility that Scotland will achieve its independence within the next 50 years. This might lead to closing the existing Trident bases and facilities and moving them elsewhere. This would involve very heavy costs.


    (a)  If we retain nuclear weapons we shall continue to be seen as the subordinate ally of the USA by many countries.

    (b)  The slight reduction in the number of warheads proposed by HM Government, rather than setting an example for others as a move towards a peaceful, fairer and safer world, as the Prime Minister claims, emphasizes that we consider it necessary to retain nuclear weapons. In any case, any reduction in number of warheads is likely to be offset by the greater speed and accuracy of the replacement Trident system.

    (c)  Retention also would be against the wishes of the majority of Scottish citizens, who feel strongly both about the UK's possession of nuclear weapons and about their presence in Scotland: it will strengthen their desire for Scottish independence.


  Our association with the USA would decrease our security by increasing our liability to terrorist attacks.


  If the UK were to abandon its nuclear weapons, we should be the first of the original nuclear states to do so. We should be signalling to the world that we no longer considered that such weapons justified their costs. We should be confirming the conclusions of those states that have started to acquire or considered acquiring nuclear weapons and decided to abandon the enterprise (Brazil, South Africa, Yugoslavia, Libya, Canada, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, and perhaps others) and the great majority of states that have not seriously considered the matter. As the first of the original nuclear states to abandon nuclear weapons, there is a wonderful window of opportunity for UK to lead the world towards a more peaceful world. Several serving and ex-diplomats have commented off the record that the UK's abandoning nuclear weapons would be likely to have a dramatic effect.

(C)   The White Paper claims repetitively that the UK's position with respect to nuclear weapons is legal. (Blair; Executive Summary; 2-10; Box 3-1 para 7)

  1.  The major reason given is that the UK has made some progress in reducing its nuclear armoury (Blair; 2-9 to 2-11). This is a non sequitur.

  2.  The White Paper gives the fact that the NPT recognises the five original nuclear states as though that were a justification for our retention of nuclear weapons, whereas it was merely a recognition of the status quo (2-9).

  3.  The White Paper quotes the 1996 judgement of the International Court of Justice selectively (2-11), and mentions only in the attached Fact Sheet 3 its unanimous decision that "the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law"; though it added the reservation that "in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake".

  4.  The White Paper's claim that it would only use nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances of self-defence is hardly in keeping with its refusal to forgo first use (3-4).

  5.  The White Paper also failed to mention the unequivocal undertaking given by the five original nuclear states in the 2000 Review Conference "to accomplish the total elimination of their arsenal leading to nuclear disarmament." Recognition as one of the five nuclear states gives us specific responsibilities under Article VI to negotiate in good faith towards a nuclear weapon free world. Renewing Trident, even with the fudge of a possible reduction in warhead numbers, is hardly consistent with this responsibility.

  6.  The White Paper also claims that we have done all we can to encourage other states to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (2-6). This cannot be the case so long as we signal our belief in dependence on nuclear weapons by retaining our own. Nor does our refusal to give assurance that we will not be the first to use a nuclear weapon discourage other states from acquiring nuclear weapons.

  7.  The White Paper points out that the NPT sets no time table for nuclear disarmament as though that were an excuse for their indefinite retention (2-10).

(D)   The Trident system and its proposed replacement is referred to as an "independent" deterrent. (eg Blair; 3-4; Box 3-1)

  In the long term it uses US components. In the medium term the system is dependent on the USA for missiles and missile maintenance and on the largely US owned Devonport dockyard for submarine maintenance. In the short term missile accuracy depends on the US GPS system (until the European system becomes fully operational) and on information on upper winds that at present comes from the USA. Anticipated warhead refurbishment or replacement is also likely to involve the USA.

(E)   A number of highly relevant and important wider issues are not considered in the White Paper

  1.  The White Paper neglects other possible ways of improving our security. It is undeniable that, in addition to our irredeemable colonial past, our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our close identification with US foreign policies, are potent causes of our current insecurity. The two latter are reversible.

  2.  The White Paper does not take account of the inexorable trend, exemplified particularly in the climate change problem and in patterns of commercial activity, towards global inter-dependence. To survive and prosper in this situation it will surely be in the interest of a middle-ranking, trade-dependent power, such as the UK, to promote the acceptance of effective international treaties and mechanisms of collaboration, particularly the UN (for all its present shortcomings and need for reform). Whatever value the concept of nuclear deterrence may have held in the Cold War, it is clear that to-day nuclear weapons are only an obstacle to peace and security. We believe that the questionable benefits of Trident continuation, suggested in the White Paper, could be far surpassed (in the period 2020-50, when any Trident replacement would be operative) by a UK diplomatic initiative, starting with true compliance with Clause VI of the NPT, for strengthening the effectiveness and credibility of the UN and similar bodies.

  3.  Related to this, the White Paper does not make any contribution to solving the anomaly of an increasingly integrated Europe that contains two nominally independent, and essentially uncollaborating, nuclear forces, in a continent in which no other country owns nuclear weapons. At the very least there should be public debate on whether and why this anomaly can be sustainable.

  4.  If the Government moves forward with Trident replacement, Parliament should ensure that the UK significantly increases its non-proliferation activities in order to ensure that this will be the last time the UK needs to upgrade a nuclear weapons system.

(F)   In conclusion

  The renewal of our nuclear weapons will be a step towards a world ruled by mutual threat and fear. It will signal to those countries that might be considering "going nuclear" that we consider them to be essential to the security of the state, and hence encourage further proliferation. The Trident renewal decision presents us with a real window of opportunity to reverse these increasingly worrying trends. Not renewing Trident would be a step towards a world ruled by law and mutual understanding. We all desire the latter, but it will not be achieved unless some country takes the lead. The UK has a unique opportunity to earn the respect of the world by being the first of the original nuclear weapon states to discard its nuclear arsenal. Following this with a programme of positive diplomacy could put the UK in the forefront of international progress in accomplishing the total elimination of nuclear arsenals world-wide, so implementing our responsibilities under the NPT. In the words of the Russell-Einstein manifesto, the founding document of Pugwash, we encourage all decision makers to "remember your humanity and forget the rest."

10 January 2007

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