Memorandum from the Church of England
1. The Church of England welcomes the opportunity
to respond to the Defence Committee's inquiry on the Government's
White Paper on "The Future of the UK's Nuclear Deterrent".
The Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Church of England
is the body responsible for overseeing research and comment on
social and political issues on behalf of the Church. The Council
comprises a representative group of bishops, clergy and lay people
with interest and expertise in the relevant areas, and reports
to the General Synod through the Archbishops' Council.
2. We agree that it is a fundamental responsibility
of any Government to provide for the security of the UK and its
citizens now and for the future, against both real and potential
threats, including nuclear aggression and blackmail. Security
is the good that makes possible all other goods and the defence
of the United Kingdom remains the first duty of the Government.
Yet, since nuclear weapons belong by virtue of their terrifying
power in a different category to any other weapons' system it
is important to ask what kind of security they offer us and in
what circumstances, if any, their use or threat of use can be
3. There is much in the White Paper that
is to be welcomed. The White Paper is in our view right to seek
to confine its arguments for the retention of a nuclear capability
solely to the case for deterring nuclear threats and to resist
the temptation to broaden its use to counter lesser threats such
as chemical and biological weapons. We welcome the proposed reductions
in the stockpile of the UK's nuclear arsenal. These, and a readiness
to reduce the number of submarines necessary to maintain this
deterrent capability underline the UK's track record in progressively
reducing its capability in line with its international obligations
under the Non Proliferation Treaty. We also agree that the question
of what constitutes a reasonable insurance policy in a dangerous
and uncertain world is important and difficult. It is right that
Governments should err on the side of caution.
4. The White Paper does not adequately address
the ethical concerns that many Christians and people of other
faiths and none have around the manufacture and use of nuclear
weapons. These concerns are no less grave now than in the days
of the Cold War. There are three issues here. First, it is essential
in our view that ethical issues concerning the manufacture and
use of nuclear weapons are fully considered in the debate which
the Government has invited on its proposals. Second, in addition
to the issue of the moral legitimacy of a nuclear deterrent, it
is also necessary that the public debate address the White paper's
deliberate ambiguity as to what might constitute a minimum nuclear
deterrence. That deliberate ambiguity may be justified, but it
must not be allowed to foreclose the debate. Third, in the debate
the Government also needs, in our view, to demonstrate more convincingly
than in the White Paper how the proposed deterrent would add to
the security of the UK and to the UK's ability to act effectively
in the service of peace, justice and prosperity in the wider world.
These concerns and questions must be examined vigorously over
the coming months. The Government has a solemn obligation to ensure
that all the facts necessary for an informed debate are made available.
5. The White Paper accepts that the security
environment has changed significantly since the end of the Cold
War, but it argues that while it is not possible accurately to
predict the global security environment over the next 20 to 50
years there are worrying trends in international security that
legitimate the retention of a minimum nuclear deterrence, namely
nuclear proliferation and state-sponsored terrorists armed with
nuclear weapons. This raises three key questions. The key question,
even for those who accept the legitimacy of nuclear deterrence,
is whether this is meant to imply that given the inherent unpredictability
of international relations the UK will continue to require a nuclear
deterrent in perpetuity.
6. Other than paragraph 2.12, the White
Paper provides inadequate evidence as to whether the Government
can envisage a situation where Britain does give up its nuclear
deterrent. Does the Government believe that the possession of
an independent nuclear deterrent is a temporary or a permanent
feature of Britain's strategic capabilities? If it is temporary,
then what are the conditions under which such a capability would
be surrendered? If it is permanent, then the case needs to be
made, particularly given Britain's Treaty obligations under international
7. The second key question is whether, post
Cold War, deterrence will work: can those states and non-state
actors that threaten UK security actually be deterred from undertaking
acts of aggression by either existing or new approaches to nuclear
deterrence? This needs to be much more fully argued than in the
current White Paper. Beyond the acknowledgement that nuclear weapons
pose "a uniquely terrible threat" and should only be
used in "extreme circumstances", and only then in a
way "consistent with the application of the general rules
of international law", the White Paper offers only the pronouncement
in paragraph 3.4 that: "We deliberately maintain ambiguity
about precisely when, how, and at what scale we would contemplate
use of our nuclear deterrent. We will not simplify the calculations
of a potential aggressor by defining more precisely the circumstances
in which we might consider the use of nuclear capabilities. Hence
we will not rule in or out the first use of nuclear weapons."
8. This deliberate ambiguity at the heart
of the Government's thinking is further spelled out in paragraph
3.11 when the White Paper notes: "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 attack."
9. We acknowledge that there is merit in
keeping potential enemies guessing. Nevertheless, given the grave
ethical issues involved with any use or threat of use of nuclear
weapons, it is legitimate to ask in a democracy, bearing in mind
our obligations under international law, in what sorts of circumstances
their use might be justified and proportionate in the terms of
the just war doctrine. The White Paper gives inadequate treatment
of that legitimate question which must be asked if the public
debate is to be meaningful.
10. In our view the fear that making any
further information about this publicly available would reduce
the credibility of the UK's deterrent is overstated. Such reticence
might have been excusable at the height of the Cold War when the
UK faced the massive Soviet nuclear arsenal, but is it acceptable
in today's circumstances? This position is not necessarily shared
by other comparably sized nuclear powers, as evidenced by the
readiness of President Chirac openly to discuss these issues.
The modernisation and adaptation of the French nuclear arsenal
to strike at a potential aggressor's political, economic and military
power centres in a comparatively discriminate way marks a significant
departure from the "anti-cities" strategy of the Cold
War. It is disappointing that a similar shift in strategy and
a move towards greater public transparency is not reflected in
the UK's White Paper.
11. The third question left unasked and
unanswered by the White Paper concerns the targeting strategy
for these weapons. Can we be assured that the war plan for Trident,
and any successor, will be based only and wholly on an explicit
counter combatant targeting strategy, holding at risk military
and related assets, and keeping non-combatant casualties to a
proportionate minimum? This is a crucial question in the context
of the ethical arguments against nuclear weapons which are strikingly
omitted from the interesting essay BOX 3.1 setting out the government's
response to various counter-arguments. Since this is probably
the most widely held objection to nuclear deterrence the omission
is very curious.
12. The Government may wish to argue that
the ethical challenge can be ignored on the grounds that deterrence
has worked and will work, and so we do not need to enquire how.
But that misses the key point. For deterrence to work there must
be at least a possibility that the weapons might be used: that
possibility, however remote, underpins the effectiveness of deterrence.
If there were no circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons
would be morally permissible then there can be no ethically acceptable
deterrence. To assess the validity of the deterrence argument,
therefore, there must be some indication of the circumstances
in which the weapons might be used.
13. Addressing this ethical concern would
not require the Government to disclose details of targeting plans
or precise details of the envisaged circumstances of use. All
it would require is for the Government to indicate what is its
overall strategy, including the parameters for the weapons' use
and any limits within which any targeting policy would be set.
That would enable the Government to explain how their use would
be consistent with the UK's obligations in international law,
as well as with ethical principles, in particular the just war
requirements that any use of weapons should be proportionate to
the objective to be achieved and discriminate in order to minimise
14. In our view it would be extremely difficultmany
in the Church would say impossibleto reconcile with just
war requirements of jus in bello an "anti-city" strategy
of the kind that was fashionable at the height of the Cold War.
Now other more discriminate targeting options are in theory available
and technically feasible in a way they were not in the early days
of deterrence. Are they part of the Government's thinking? It
is crucial to know, if the debate on Britain's nuclear deterrent
policy is to be meaningful.
15. If the Government is not willing to
engage in such discussions it leaves itself vulnerable to the
charge from those opposed to nuclear deterrence that the use or
very possession of nuclear weapons is immoral and somehow coarsens
the moral fabric of the nation. If it is unwilling to say anything
further about the terms under which it might use its deterrent,
then how are Parliament and the wider public meant to evaluate
the efficacy and utility of such an instrument, even assuming
that they are prepared to accept the principle of nuclear deterrence?
The Government therefore should set out the parameters for the
use of the weapons and explain how they meet the UK's obligations
in international law and the ethical principles that underpin
them. It is important to remember that the credibility of the
national deterrence strategy depends to a significant extent on
public backing since an assessment of that will itself play into
the calculations of potential aggressors.
16. The White Paper signals a redefinition
of what the Government believes constitutes an acceptable minimum
deterrence. The envisaged reduction in the numbers of operationally
available warheads from fewer than 200 to fewer than 160 and a
corresponding reduction in the size of the UK's overall stockpile
is to be welcomed as is the option of reducing from four to three
the number of submarines. These developments underline the UK's
good track recordbetter than that of the other existing
nuclear powersin progressively reducing its capability
in line with its NPT obligations.
17. However, the White Paper gives no explanation
as to how this further 20% reduction in the UK's warhead stockpile
was reached. The figure appears to have been plucked out of the
air with no indication given as to the criteria used and calculations
involved. Would further cuts say of 25%, 35% or even 50% be possible
without undermining the credibility of the UK's deterrence?
18. What is missing from the White Paper
is any definition of what constitutes an acceptable minimum deterrence
and any explanation as to how this definition was reached. The
Government needs to take advantage of the opportunity provided
by the debate on the White Paper to explain the proposed reduction
and to explore whether further cuts are possible. Are the 20%
cuts at the upper or bottom end of the spectrum of what constitutes
a minimum nuclear deterrent? Is it possible to retain a minimum
deterrence with a cut of 50%? What criteria did the Government
use to reach the proposed 20% reduction?
19. We fear that the White Paper paints
an unduly optimistic picture of the potential procurement costs
for replacing Trident and the impact that this might have on either
the annual defence budget or the UK's conventional military capability.
20. In Section 5 of the White Paper it is
estimated that the procurement costs for replacing Trident will
be in the region of £15-20 billion (at 2006 prices) for four
submarines and the associated equipment and infrastructure. It
calculates that the procurement costs are likely on average to
be the equivalent of around 3% of the current defence budget.
How much confidence can be placed in these estimates? Evidence
from the past is not encouraging: since Trident became operational
in 1994, annual expenditure for capital and operating costs, including
the costs for the Atomic Weapons Establishment, ranged between
3 and 5.5% of the annual defence budget.
21. The White Paper correctly points out
in paragraph 5.12 that it is not possible to be sure what the
size of the defence budget will be over the timescale involved.
However, most defence analysts believe the long tem reduction
in the defence budget is very unlikely to be reversed, and many
believe that defence spending could well fall further, probably
to about 1.7% of GDP by 2020. If they are correct, then the
procurement costs for replacing Trident seem bound to consume
a larger proportion of the defence budget than predicted by the
White Paper with the consequent knock on effect on the UK's capacity
to undertake other operations, including peace-keeping and stabilisation.
22. Any decision on the long-term future
of Britain's nuclear deterrence needs to take into account both
the possible threats to our security and the capability of the
British armed forces to respond effectively to those threats.
The publication of the White Paper has occurred at a time when
British armed forces appear increasingly stretched and over-committed
in various peacekeeping operations. Public confidence has been
shaken by media coverage that makes much of the perceived lack
of basic equipment issued to those members of the UK's armed services
currently deployed overseas. Recent stories have also drawn attention
to the inadequate quality of much military accommodation. All
this has raised the question whether, rather than committing resources
to replacing Trident to meet an uncertain future threat, the Government
would do better strengthening and renewing Britain's conventional
armed forces for the threats and challenges that they are already
23. Against this volatile background it
is not sufficient for the White Paper merely to assert as it does
in paragraph 5.15 that: "The investment required to maintain
our deterrent will not come at the expense of the conventional
capabilities our armed forces need". The Government needs
to provide more substantial argument and evidence that a decision
to renew Trident will not put at risk the capability and capacity
of Britain's armed forces to undertake demanding military responsibilities
outside its immediate neighbourhood, both now and in the future.
At the very least, it should consider whether the initial costs
of replacing Britain's minimum nuclear deterrent could be met
from a separately identified vote rather than from the current