Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from Abolition 2000 UK


  Abolition 2000 UK is the UK arm of Abolition 2000, an international network of about 1,700 organisations in over 90 countries committed to work for the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. Abolition 2000 was set up after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in 1995, which made that treaty permanent. We welcomed the famous 13-step programme for nuclear disarmament contained in paragraph 15 of the gloss on NPT article VI in the final report of the 2000 review conference. We lobby government agencies both national and international, co-ordinate cooperative actions, and publish papers on the problems of nuclear weaponry. We are the main UK distributor of "Security and Survival—The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention", containing the text of the model nuclear weapons convention (designed along the lines of the chemical and biological weapons conventions) as well as supporting arguments and comments on the problems to be overcome to secure such a convention. Copies can be provided for members of the Defence Select Committee if desired.

1.   The lifetime of the present V-class submarines

  The US plans to retain and refurbish as necessary its present Ohio-class nuclear missile carrying submarines for a prolonged period. Yet on page 10 of the white paper we have the claim or admission that the UK V-class submarines are not as robust as the US Ohio type. The committee may wish to examine the truth and details for this claim. It would seem to imply, relative to the US situation, either deficiencies in UK submarine-building capability or earlier and careless governmental cost-cutting or both. Apparently all previous UK-built submarines were designed to last no more than 25 years and there are serious risks as well as costs to a life extension programme. The committee may wish to examine the evidence for this and its implications. Abolition 2000 UK does not claim expertise in naval technology although other submissions to the committee may be from those with such expertise. Yet we urge the committee to consider the likelihood that the political cost of a new submarine programme will outweigh the financial costs of merely maintaining the current fleet. The white paper's reference to "difficulties in the Astute programme" is troubling. We suspect that design of nuclear missile submarines to modern standards of safety and security will present even greater challenges. The need to fill the "design gap" and to provide jobs for the design teams will surely be better met by the design of other naval vessels of a more conventional and hence usable kind.

2.   Plans for the Trident missiles

  A change in missile design or capability would be a significant increase in the perceived threat represented by the UK nuclear weapons (NW). But the missiles are US designed and built, and the UK just has notional title to those in its part of the armoury. Assurances have apparently been received (see page 11 of the white paper) that the present missiles will remain available until 2042 with some modest life extension planned. Abolition 2000 UK welcomes the presumption that there have been and will be no changes in payload, in range or in missile accuracy over this time period—representing a half century stasis in missile technology. But we would like to be made sure of this, as perhaps would the committee.

3.   The status of the UK as a Nuclear Weapons State (NWS)

  3A.  On page 13 the white paper refers to the 2000 NPT Review Conference and mentions UK support for the "13 steps" towards nuclear disarmament agreed at the NPT Review Conference in 2000. Abolition 2000 UK welcomes this statement but questions its consistency with the proposals contained elsewhere in the white paper. And we disagree with some of the white paper's interpretations of the NPT and other international legal commitments. For example, on page 14 (International Obligations) NPT "recognition" of UKs status as a nuclear weapons state (NWS) is described. Although this avoids the use of the word "legal" concerning the five 1968 NWS and previously employed casually by Defence Minister Geoff Hoon and others in parliament, there is in fact no implication in the Treaty of either a recognised or a legal status for the weapons then and now in the hands of the five. Words like "recognition" or "recognise" are nowhere used in the treaty; NWS are simply defined (in article IX) "for the purposes of this treaty" as those who tested before 1967.

  3B.  We also note that the white paper claims compliance with NPT articles I and VI. But with the later reference to the 1958 mutual defence agreement, and in view of the UK's apparently having obtained warhead neutron generators directly from the US, it is evident that we are close to violation of the NPT article I on nuclear weapons components transfer. US transfer of warhead design information is arguably a violation of article I; transfer of manufactured warhead components is almost certainly such a violation.

  3C.  We also note and regret the defensive mention of the fanciful general disarmament clause inserted after the article VI comma as well as the remarks in this part of the white paper about the absence of a definite nuclear disarmament timetable. Inclusion of any such timetable would in any case have been inappropriate in the original treaty. But here surely reference could be made to the 1996 International Court of Justice (ICJ) opinion which indicated that immediate negotiations were indeed called for. The UK is not currently involved in any such negotiations.

  3D.  The comments here on the 1996 ICJ advisory opinion are in our opinion weak or misleading; it cannot be truthfully said that the advisory opinion rejected the argument that NW use would necessarily be unlawful. The only circumstance in which the court felt that it was unable to determine whether the use or threat of use was lawful or unlawful was when the actual survival of the state was threatened. That threshold for possible (but still not certain) lawfulness is much higher than any suggested within the white paper (cf paragraph 5 below).

4.   The UK NW policy and NATO

  4A.  On page 17 of the white paper we have mention of NATO and Warsaw pact in an historical context but none of current NATO policy nor of the relationship of the UK Trident programme to that policy. The white paper contains nothing here, or even under "international obligations", about any treaty and practice obligations that the UK has with respect to its nuclear arsenal within NATO. The only other comments concern defence of NATO allies (fact sheet 3 and page 19), but neither is presented in the context of NATO NW policy. The committee might wish to determine the relationship between UK NW and NATO, and whether the declared NATO policy of potential first use (not quite the same as saying neither first use nor no first use) is consistent with UK policy and UK responsibilities in international law.

  4B.  It could be argued that the two strongest reasons for maintaining at least a provisional NW capability—if not new submarines—would be (a) the need to discuss this within NATO (because the substrategic role of Trident is currently seen as part of NATO nuclear policy) and (b) the need for UK cross-party agreement on such a key issue. Neither is clearly addressed in the white paper. Yet the UK's acceptance of the 2000 NPT Review Conference 13 steps under article VI implies this country's preparedness eventually to move towards nuclear disarmament. That means that a future decision will be made to abandon UK weapons. To lay the ground for such a decision, however far it may lie in the future, the government will need to discuss how broad agreement could be achieved, both at a national level, with the opposition parties, and an international level, with our NATO allies. Decisions on the Trident programme in the immediate future could affect the possibility of achieving such agreement or even meaningful discussion in the slightly longer future. The committee might thus look at the proposed plans in the light of our international treaty commitments, including those within NATO, and the historic patterns of those UK defence policies that have been the subject of general and especially cross-party agreement.

5.   The purpose of the UK Nuclear Weapons

  We welcome the statement that the declared focus of UK nuclear policy is on preventing nuclear attack and that UK nuclear weapons are not designed for military use during a local or narrowly regional conflict. The committee might wish to try to make this more firm. We note that this contradicts some of the remarks by then Defence Minister Geoff Hoon prior to and during the 2003 Gulf war concerning the possible threat of a nuclear response to CBW use against troops in the field outside the UK. The white paper text also seems to limit NW to deterrence of (serious or only nuclear?) "acts of aggression against vital interests", wording which is close to but not identical with that in the ICJ "survival of the state" case. But then on p 18 it is said that "we will not rule in or out first use". This could be read as a retreat from the traditional ("cold war") first use policy which we understand remains the NATO position—that potential first use is an intrinsic part of NATO nuclear strategy—or not. The committee might wish to examine and clarify this. The idea that the US or France might not support us if we were attacked and not nuclear-armed is courteously placed as a belief that an "enemy" might have, rather than one that we might have ourselves. But the logic there is close to circular. The discussion of the role of nuclear weapons in situations involving "weak and failing states, terrorists etc." is in our opinion one of the weaker areas of the document. We believe that a closer examination of the usefulness or otherwise of nuclear weapons in any situation that did not involve a confrontation with a nuclear-armed power is needed and that the committee might usefully look at this.

6.   UK Nuclear Weapons and the NPT

  On page 20 a further attempt is made to refute the argument that the UK is guilty of hypocrisy by planning to retain its own weapons while denying such weapons to others. This attempt again involves referring to the UK as "recognised" as a NWS in the NPT. It always needs emphasising, and the committee might look into the questions of legal language involved, that the distinction between NWS and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) in the NPT is simply to be a practical one based upon the state of play in 1968. Had the treaty been signed into law more recently the NWS list would have included at least India and Pakistan if not Israel and the DPRK. The treaty obligations on NWS and NNWS are essentially the same. In our view the treaty does not give any special status to the then and now signatory five NWS; it calls upon them to disarm while calling upon all others not to become nuclear-armed.

7.   The number of new vessels needed

  On page 26 it is suggested that only three new submarines may be needed. The committee might wish to examine the probable and indeed likely problems of cost overruns and also the overlap between the stages of proposed Trident decommissioning and of new submarine launches. The committee might also examine the possibility that when all costs are included and in view of future geopolitical uncertainties that a major programme of re-hulling and refitting the current submarines over time might be preferred. Were this to be done one submarine at a time the UK would continue to have three such vessels available to it, a situation which the country has faced in the past and apparently will face in the future if the proposed new fleet were to contain only three boats.

8.   MoD requirements, the UK ship-building industry and the choice of system

  8A.  We feel that the relationship described on page 28 between the MoD and industry is an uneasy one. It proclaims an intention to build new boats in the UK, but only if UK industry can do it to specification, to cost and on time. We think that the committee might wish to look again at these problems in the light of the white paper and national policy. Plans for major refitting of the current fleet could remove some of the problems involved. A decision not to retire the current fleet until all the potential problems are clarified would be another part of such a policy. And a delay in any such planning, while this country looked again at the likelihood of major developments in international discussions on nuclear disarmament, would be a third reason not to go ahead in such an uncertain state of mind.

  8B.  Re "afloat storage". On a smaller point we note on p 29 the uncomfortable description of "afloat storage" which is clearly unsatisfactory on environmental, health and safety grounds. Are the decommissioned V-class submarines to stay rusting in Devonport for ever? The committee might wish to look into the possibility of more complete if more expensive full decommissioning of all the submarines, initially those that are no longer needed and eventually, and in another context, of those currently seen as "needed".

  8C.  On page 36 the surface ship option is placed in a surprisingly prominent position. And the suggestion that only three such vessels would be needed indicates that it could be a cheaper option (page 39). Yet such vessels would presumably be more easily tracked than submarines. The committee may wish to try to determine whether this suggestion is linked to a possible increase in ocean transparency under surveillance by sophisticated satellites. It is not clear to us how invisible the submerged V-class submarines are to a technically sophisticated potential enemy or even to some of our friends. But Abolition 2000 UK suspects that the US navy always knows where the UK nuclear weapons submarine patrol is. The committee might wish to obtain expert opinion concerning current technical ability to track submerged vessels.

9.   Relationship with the US, current missiles and with warhead modification

  9A.  On page 31 we note that the white paper describes and defends UK activities under the 1958 mutual defence agreement with the US. The committee might wish to examine the possibility that the 1958 agreement, which preceded the NPT, represents at least in part a possible violation of NPT commitments under article I of that treaty. Our participation in a successor to D5 missile is assured with a promised exchange of open letters with the US president. The committee might wish to examine the details that we would like to see contained in such letters and obtaining from the government a firm commitment to open publication of the details if and when the time comes.

  9B.  We are apparently assured of D5 missile successor compatibility with the new submarines (although the committee might wish to examine this in more detail). But plans for our warheads are less clear. If indeed no new warheads are to be designed and manufactured we need a clearer explanation from the MoD of the current increases in staff and scientific capability such as the Orion laser at Aldermaston. Abolition 2000 UK is also concerned about the UK's commitment to both the letter and the spirit of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty (CTBT). Subcritical testing of aspects and components of redesigned warheads in US facilities is not consistent with the spirit and may come close to violation of the letter of the CTBT. The committee might ask the government to reiterate its support for the CTBT, to firmly ask the US to ratify the treaty and to engage actively within the UN to secure the other ratifications that would bring this treaty into force.

10.   The seven nation initiative and response to opposing arguments

  10A.  Abolition 2000 UK welcomes the mention on page 33 of the Norwegian-led seven-country initiative on nuclear weapons and disarmament. We and perhaps the committee will be pleased that as the UK is the only NWS among the 7 nations involved in this initiative the government should be congratulated on setting an example to other NWS, both the original five and those outside the NPT. This is a possible source of progress that could vitiate any need for new submarines, for other ships, or even for any major refitting of the present fleet.

  10B.  Many of the arguments against Trident renewal are listed and discussed in the white paper. This is a positive signal and we congratulate HM Government on their attention to our and others' views. We only wish that the white paper had been a green paper and that a final governmental decision was therefore still open. We urge the committee to ask the government to change the colour of the document before us.

14 January 2007

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