Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from Oxford Research Group


  There is no need to rush into a binding decision on replacing the Trident system at this time. Binding major financial commitments would be imprudent.

  Proper time should be taken to debate the post Cold War security environment, in particular assessing the relative probabilities of threats which it is suggested UK nuclear weapons could deter, and threats which could occur if the non-proliferation regime breaks down.

  The UK should be seeking urgently to encourage more rapid progress on non-proliferation and multilateral nuclear disarmament. The UK would have more credibility and flexibility in such negotiations if it had deferred long-term decisions on its nuclear weapons.


  Oxford Research Group (ORG) is a small independent think tank based near Oxford which works to develop effective methods for people to bring about positive change on issues of national and international security by non-violent means. Established in 1982, it is a registered charity and a public company limited by guarantee.

  Dr Frank Barnaby is Nuclear Issues Consultant to ORG. His previous positions include nuclear physicist, Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston; Director, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute; Professor, Free University of Amsterdam: Professor, University of Minnesota. Professor Ken Booth, E H Carr Professor of International Politics, Department of International Politics, University of Wales Aberystwyth, has been a visiting researcher at the US Naval War College, Dalhousie University in Canada, and Cambridge University. Malcolm Savidge is Parliamentary Consultant to ORG. He was previously MP for Aberdeen North (1997-2005), and Convener, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation (2000-05). Honorary Fellow, Robert Gordon University.


  1.1  The first question on Fact Sheet 1 accompanying the White Paper—"Why do we need to take a decision now?"—is pertinent. Certainly the Press from The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail to The Daily Mirror and The Guardian asked "Why the rush?" and "Why now?"

  1.2  As stated in ORG's written evidence to the Committee's first Inquiry on this issue, many experts in relevant fields have also expressed surprise that the Government wished to make this decision during the current Parliament.

  1.3  There is a risk that there will be reduced public confidence in a decision which appears to be rushed, particularly if there is mistrust about the grounds for an early decision.

  1.4  The White Paper indicates that timing issues relate primarily to the submarine platform.

  1.5  The time-table for making this decision depends on four factors: the life-span of Trident, the date from which the life span is deemed to start, any extension programme and the required lead-time for a replacement.

  1.6  The Strategic Defence Review indicated a thirty year life expectancy for the submarine.

  1.7  At the end of December 2002, Defence Minister, Dr Lewis Moonie stated: "For as long as necessary we will maintain a nuclear deterrent and that means Trident to the end of its useful life, a minimum of 30 years".

  1.8  In the 2003 Defence White Paper, which referred to the decision being taken in the next parliament, the life expectancy of Trident was given as 30 years.

  1.9  In evidence to the Committee on 24 November 2004 [Q548], Admiral Sir Alan West said, "as was said in the SDR, we expected the current deterrent, the Trident Force, to last 30 years".

  1.10  All these statements were made before any decision had been taken on life extension.

  1.11  The MoD memorandum to the Select Committee's first Inquiry stated: "The submarines were procured with a designed operational life of 25 years and on this basis, they would start to be withdrawn from service late in the next decade.

  1.12  This seems surprising not only because it is at variance with previous statements, but also because patrols and operational demands have been significantly reduced since the Cold War ended, and a less intensive deployment regime might be expected to increase longevity.

  1.13  The change would seem so substantial, and of sufficient economic significance, that it might be expected that it would only have been made after careful analysis by the MoD.

  1.14  However when Rear Admiral Mathews, Director General Nuclear, MoD gave evidence to the Committee 21 November 2006, he was clearly unaware that life expectancy had previously been given as 30 years, in the face of repeated questioning.

  1.15  The White Paper and the accompanying Fact Sheets state repeatedly that the submarines were "only designed for a 25 year life". In view of 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8 above, prima facie this appears to be factually incorrect.

  1.16  The life span could start from manufacturers' first sea trial, commissioning or entry into operational service: for the first Trident submarine, HMS Vanguard the respective dates are 1992, 1993 and 1994. The White Paper chooses the first option; this is unusual, further reduces the expected life span and brings forward the need for a decision.

  1.17  With lead-time, Vanguard took 13-14 years from decision to going into service; Astute took nearly 15 years, but was reported to be subject to "years of delay and cost overruns" [Michael Evans, Defence Editor, The Times, 17 April 2006]. Professor Michael Clarke suggests a lead-time of 10-15 years, while tending to favour the upper end of that range [Does my bomb look big in this?, International Affairs, January 2004, p 55].

  1.18  The 2005 RAND report prepared for the MoD assessed that "design of a follow-on SSBN class would have to start approximately 15 years prior to the desired in-service date for replacement submarines". [J Schank et al, Sustaining Design and Production Resources, The United Kingdom's Nuclear Submarine Industrial Base, Vol 1, p xviii].

  1.19  In its first Report, the Committee assumed "that procurement of a Trident replacement would take approximately 14 years" [p 29, para 110 and conclusions].

  1.20  The White Paper sets a lead-time of 17 years or around 17 years, and on that basis the Prime Minister says the decision must be made early in 2007. This contrasts with Dr John Reid's evidence to the Committee on 1 November 2005, "It is not absolutely essential the decision is taken during this Parliament but it would be highly desirable in my view".

  1.21  The White Paper claims its estimate of the lead time is based on experts, the judgement of industry, and French and US experience, but provides little supporting evidence.

  1.22  Evidence from the manufacturers is vital, but they have a vested interest. From the Committee's Second Enquiry it is clear that there are commercial interests in an early decision and early replacement.

  1.23  An unduly precipitate decision on this issue risks exposing the government to many of the same criticisms that were made of decisions taken prior to the Iraq war. These included the allegation that expert evidence was used selectively, and that evidence which supported the Government's favoured option was insufficiently rigorously questioned. It has also been suggested that Parliament was rushed into a premature decision, and that in our adversarial system a situation where Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition were committed to the same course of action and the same timetable contributed to insufficient scrutiny.

  1.24  If the decision is taken in early 2007, it will be taken under the present Prime Minister, and it is reported that he sees this as a "legacy" issue.

  1.25. A period for concept studies is included in the Government's 17-year lead time. However, on 30 June 2004 Geoff Hoon informed the House [Hansard, col 356-358] that concept studies were undertaken between May 2002 and May 2003 at a cost of around £560,000. Furthermore any further studies could be agreed and undertaken before any irrevocable decision is taken.

  1.26  The Committee in its first report, based on the 25-year life expectancy, concluded that a decision could be delayed to 2010, with a binding decision not required until 2014.


  2.1  In its first report the Committee welcomed "the Government's promise of a full and open debate, in Parliament and in the country at large".

  2.2  When the last decision was taken on replacing submarine-based British nuclear weapons in 1980, the then Labour Shadow Secretary of Defence, William Rodgers, argued that an open debate required a Green Paper.

  2.3  A Green Paper in which this Government set out its position, but was then open to consultation, before producing a White Paper would have seemed the best way of achieving open debate.

  2.4  As it is, producing a White Paper in December and having a vote in March, when recesses are taken into account, seems to provide far too little time for scrutiny and expert analysis of the Government's case. Indeed the Committee may feel that it is being forced into an unduly rushed enquiry.

  2.5  Given the totally changed strategic environment of the post-Cold-War period, and that, as the Prime Minister said, the "consequences of a misjudgement on this issue are potentially catastrophic", far more time should be provided for Parliament and the people to take a considered decision.


  3.1  In his statement, the Prime Minister described British nuclear weapons as "one of the mainstays of our security since the war". This seems questionable: in the first decade after World War Two, the UK did not have its own nuclear weapons. In the period from then until the end of the Cold War, it is debateable how far British and French nuclear weapons influenced the deterrence between the USA and the Soviet Union. In the period since the Cold War, the nature of the security environment has not been one in which British nuclear weapons have been particularly relevant.

  3.2  In looking ahead to the future, there can be no absolute security. The balance of relative risks must be assessed.

  3.3  As the White Paper says [3-8]: "Currently no state has both the intent to threaten our vital interests and the capability to do so with nuclear weapons."

  3.4  Britain is not currently threatened by any other nuclear weapons state, and is very unlikely in the future to be involved in unilateral confrontation of that order with, say, Russia or China.

  3.5  The UK faces no present or likely future threat within our own European region.

  3.6  The British Empire is reduced to very few dependant territories.

  3.7  Therefore out of region, military confrontation is liable to be under the auspices of the United Nations, NATO or possibly as part of a US `coalition of the willing'. In any of these circumstances we would have the deterrence of the largest conventional and nuclear forces in the world.

  3.8  The Prime Minister, in his statement, spoke of "circumstances where we are threatened but America is not". However, surely we can be confident that no future British Prime Minister would consider placing Britain in a position where, without the support of the UN, NATO, the United States or our other allies, we would become involved in a unilateral confrontation with another nation that could lead to a nuclear exchange.

  3.9  North Korean nuclear weapons and the possible future acquisition of such weapons by Iran are certainly a serious threat to regional security and a potential threat to global security. However, they are not an immediate or direct threat to the UK, and there is no reason to suppose they would have either the intention or the capability to initiate unilateral military confrontation with the UK. UK involvement in seeking to contain and reduce such threats should be multilateral and diplomatic.

  3.10  There is general agreement that nuclear deterrence is irrelevant for any future nuclear terrorist groups, as they are unlikely to have any substantial geographical location, they may well be suicidal, and they might well actually welcome the increased death, destruction and confrontation that could be caused by a general retaliation against their neighbourhood.

  3.11  The Prime Minister and the White Paper spoke of the possibility of Britain deterring governments which might sponsor or assist nuclear terrorism. Some countries sponsor terrorism, but this is usually related to regional conflicts. These are usually groups with specific political objectives, and likely to view massive death caused by nuclear weapons as counter-productive. The main threat of nuclear terrorism comes from apocalyptic groups like al Qaida, with absolutist objectives and at war with most of the world. A state would be unlikely to provide nuclear weapons to such groups, unless they could control them. If they could not control them, how would they know that the targets would not be in USA or Russia, and why then would UK nuclear weapons deter this, where larger stockpiles would not? Does this scenario envisage a state and a terrorist organisation, with an agreed objective of attacking the UK, as a sole target, with nuclear weapons? It also presumably assumes that the state would believe that it would be sufficiently clearly associated with the attack to provoke nuclear retaliation if the UK had nuclear weapons, but that it could live with likely response of the world community otherwise. Apparently this scenario "is not utterly fanciful" and "not impossible to contemplate".

  3.12  The White Paper speaks of British nuclear weapons as the ultimate insurance policy. When considering our security, for decades to come, it might seem reasonable to have an insurance policy against an uncertain future. However, there is a great danger in that concept, for if policy is based not on what potential adversaries have, but upon what they might obtain in the worst-case analysis at some time in the future, that undermines the whole basis of multilateral disarmament and non-proliferation, and is a recipe for arms-racing. There is also a danger in using unpredictability as grounds for irrationality. Probable risks should be balanced against very remote ones. Most people do not insure their house against comet strikes.

  3.13  The relative risks of the more improbable future direct threats to the UK must be balanced against the dangers of a world in which there is widespread nuclear proliferation.


  4.1  As stated in ORG's written submission to the Committee's first inquiry, though the non-proliferation regime has been remarkably successful, there are now real fears of breakdown. The UN Secretary General's High Level Panel and Kofi Annan warned of the risk of a "cascade of proliferation". Subsequently the 2005 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the UN summit failed to reach any agreements of substance in this area. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has been gridlocked for years.

  4.2  In significant speeches on non-proliferation last year, Shirley Williams [opening a debate in the Lords] and William Hague [in a lecture at the International Institute for Strategic Studies], expressed a similar sentiment: that so long after the end of the Cold War it was bizarre that our world still around 27,000 nuclear weapons, nearly half of them deployed - ready to fire. Baroness Williams went on to say, "We can move from being deployed to being used in a matter of seconds, that is the tiny thread on which the safety of the world hangs". Where she hinted that the danger of a major nuclear exchange had not been removed, William Hague spoke movingly of the consequences of a single incident: "the detonation of a nuclear weapon—by accident or design—anywhere quite literally the fall out from such a calamity would be felt across the world".

  4.3  The White Paper [3-7] draws attention to some of the factors which could cause instability in this century, failed states harbouring terrorism, conflict over resources, population growth, climate change, dual use technology. It is surely correct that the combination of such destabilisation with nuclear proliferation could be very perilous.

  4.4  There is the risk that material could be diverted from a state's nuclear weapons programme—with or without the collusion of that state—to absolutist terrorists for ideological and/or commercial reasons. Given what happened with A Q Khan, this is a scenario which seems less utterly fanciful and more possible to contemplate than the scenario outlined at 3.11. If such terrorists then decided to target the UK, nuclear deterrence would probably be irrelevant [as discussed at 3.10 above].

  4.5  More generally if there is instability in the coming century, then the more widespread nuclear proliferation is the greater probability that there will be a nuclear terrorist incident, localised nuclear war or even a major nuclear exchange, whether the UK was directly attacked or not, the "calamity would be felt across the world".

  4.6  The reality surely is that with the most likely nuclear catastrophes that could occur in the coming century, whether the UK individually possesses or does not possess nuclear weapons will have little or no direct effect on their probability. If we are to reduce the risk of disaster, the urgent need is globally to revive non-proliferation and take multilateral disarmament seriously.

  4.7  In an editorial response to the White Paper, the International Herald Tribune [7 December 2006] expressed the wish that the UK Prime Minister would put this issue on the global agenda, in the way Britain had with poverty and climate change.

  4.8  Nuclear calamity is one of the great threats of the coming decades, and even a "regional" nuclear war could undermine or outweigh any progress we made on reducing global warming or alleviating poverty.

  4.9  In seeking urgent international discussion on non-proliferation and disarmament, the UK could co-operate with Commonwealth and EU partners and the various groupings of Non-Nuclear Weapons States.

  4.10  Russia has an economic interest in agreeing deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals.

  4.11  The present US administration has been as negative on arms control treaties, as it has on Kyoto. However, with such factors as the mid-term elections, and the departure of Bolton and Rumsfeld, the atmosphere may be starting to change. On 4 January 2007, four of the elder statesmen of US security policy, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Schulz issued a bipartisan appeal for the USA to take a lead in practical steps to revive multilateral nuclear disarmament. [See Appendix]

  4.12  There are many other constructive proposals for progress, for instance in the House of Lords debate and speech by William Hague, and the suggestions of Dr ElBaradei and the Blix Commission.

  4.13  By negotiating far deeper and more rapid cuts in their own nuclear arsenals, the original nuclear weapons states would improve their own safety, strengthen their position in persuading, say, neighbours of North Korea to stay non-nuclear, and help to unite the world community in putting pressure on the nuclear weapons states outside the NPT and potential proliferators.

  4.14  Rather than rushing prematurely into a decision on replacing Trident, the UK should be concentrating on urgent diplomatic initiatives to revive nuclear non-proliferation and multilateral disarmament.


  5.1  There is no need to rush into a binding decision on replacing the Trident system at this time. Binding major financial commitments would be imprudent.

  5.2  Proper time should be taken to debate the post Cold War security environment, in particular assessing the relative probabilities of threats which it is suggested UK nuclear weapons could deter, and threats which could occur if the non-proliferation regime breaks down.

  5.3  The UK should be seeking urgently to encourage more rapid progress on non-proliferation and multilateral nuclear disarmament. The UK would have more credibility and flexibility in such negotiations if it had deferred long-term decisions on its nuclear weapons.

15 January 2007

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