Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


16 JANUARY 2007

  Q1 Chairman: Good morning. Could I begin by welcoming you to this evidence session. It is about the future of the UK strategic nuclear deterrent and it is focusing on the White Paper. Welcome to our witnesses as well as to those in the public gallery. This is the third inquiry in our series of inquiries into the future of the deterrent. I should emphasise that this is a parliamentary inquiry; it is not a government consultation exercise on the White Paper. We intend to publish our findings before the House of Commons discusses and votes on the White Paper in March or whenever that happens. I will ask you individually to introduce yourselves and then we will come on to some substantive questions about the White Paper. Mr Ainslie, would you like to begin.

Mr Ainslie: I am employed as the Co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In that capacity I have done quite a lot of research work into British nuclear weapons systems, particularly Trident. I have a bit of an academic background from a long time ago in that area.

  Ms McDonald: I work for the Nuclear Information Service, which gathers information and shares it particularly about Aldermaston and the nuclear warhead convoys.

  Mr Kent: I am Bruce Kent. I have been secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (in the 1980s) and then chair. I have been associated with that for a long time. I am also much engaged as a vice-president with the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi, and I am an active member of the United Nations Association.

  Ms Jones: I am Sian Jones. I am a member of Aldermaston Women's Peace Campaign. We are based around a peace camp that meets outside the fence of AWE Aldermaston once a month, from where we observe what is going on at AWE Aldermaston and protest against it.

  Q2  Chairman: Thank you. This is a rather egocentric beginning but a question which I asked when the White Paper was first announced in the House of Commons was related to the fact that this appeared to be a decision that was to be made not about Trident missiles, which would remain roughly the same, but about the platform on which those Trident missiles were deployed. Would you care to comment about that?

  Mr Ainslie: I was looking at the 1980 decision and the way that was done and the relationship between the announcement in Parliament and the exchange of letters. In a sense, the exchange of letters between Tony Blair and George Bush three days after the decision was announced may be an interesting area. The key thing that was in that exchange of letters was participation in the missile life extension programme. That is one of the key things that is driving the time scale, in a sense. I am not certain that is right, but it is a possible explanation as to why it has been done at this point.

  Q3  Chairman: Most of the focus, would you not agree, of the Government's White Paper is aimed at the building of submarines and the expense of submarines and whether it is worthwhile doing that and not at that life extension programme.

  Mr Ainslie: Yes, I think that is right. Basically, when you replace the submarine, the American Trident system is only around until 2040 and therefore you have to look even beyond Trident to the new missile system beyond it.

  Q4  Chairman: Thank you. Do any of the rest of you have any comments about it?

  Ms Jones: The focus of the White Paper is very much on the delivery platform and tends to be less specific on the missiles and presumably less specific on the warheads. Chapter 7 suggests that a decision on the exact nature of the warhead will be made "in the next Parliament" and the evidence that we will present in written form to the Committee and have in the past suggests, in effect, that the building work at Aldermaston is evidence that to a certain extent very much of that decision has actually been made, so we would suggest that the White Paper is not transparent about decisions that are being made at this very time about the warhead itself.

  Q5  Chairman: Ms McDonald, you would agree.

  Ms McDonald: Yes.

  Q6  Mr Hancock: As somebody who watches Aldermaston, when they gave evidence here they told us that the buildings there, many of which are now nearly 50 years old, needed major works carried out on them. A lot of the work going on at Aldermaston was not about the future of another form of warhead but was simply to enable the maintenance to continue of the existing warhead programme and because many of the buildings there were now in such a bad state that they had to spend substantial sums of money on them. Do you share that view? If you are there already, you must have contact with people there. The union representative who represents the people there bore witness to that fact and did not dissent from that line at all. I am interested that you think the contrary to that.

  Ms Jones: It is true that a large number of buildings have been demolished and that there are buildings being refurbished. Some 59 buildings have been demolished across the whole site at Aldermaston since, say, 2003. It is about keeping the place up to standards which comply with NII and Health and Safety Standards—which we know there were questions raised about. But the majority of the work, in terms of capital investment in the number of contracts issued and in the scale of the work itself, has been taking place, for example, on the Orion laser facility, and the construction of various other buildings, on which previous committees will have heard evidence from John Ainslie, from Greenpeace and from various other organisations, are all integral to the design, development and construction of a new system. So the two things are happening: bringing it up to current standards but also a considerable amount of investment, and we detailed that in our previous submission. I was at Aldermaston this weekend. The laser building is now rising to about four metres and additional pieces of infrastructure were being delivered over the weekend. They are working very hard there at the moment on the laser building.

  Mr Ainslie: There may be a parallel position with the 1970s, when there was a lot of concern about safety. A report was drawn up which said there were various safety issues at Aldermaston which resulted in a construction programme. That was also parallel to the decision to build Trident. They have a history of operating for decades with facilities that were really not very safe. It seems that, when they are thinking of a new system, that is the time when they rebuild everything.

  Q7  Mr Jones: All conspiracy theories have a kernel of truth in them but one of the issues that was put by both the unions and management when they came before us was not just what Mr Hancock said in terms of buildings but was in terms of the age profile of the workforce: that it was getting old. Ms Jones, you say that you think the decision has already been taken but they were saying that if we wanted to take that decision in the future we would not have the personnel there if that investment did not take place now. What do you say to those arguments?

  Ms Jones: With due respect, the evidence that we present is not alleging that there is a conspiracy theory, we are just giving information.

  Q8  Mr Jones: You are, because you are saying that the decision has already been taken.

  Ms Jones: I am going to read something out that would suggest that but I am not presenting a conspiracy theory. We are just presenting you with information that is available in the public domain and asking you to add that up. We have discovered that when AWEML took over the contract in April 2000, Dr John Rae, the chief executive, as part of the preparation to working at Aldermaston, met with the local Liaison Committee, which consists of representatives of trade unions, various other organisations and local persons. I am quoting from the minutes of a meeting of March 2000. In 2000 the Government's position was: "Having decided to make the UK deterrent smaller, the MoD expects a lower cost. Therefore the funding from MoD will come down to a level which allows the programme to be delivered. As a rough guide, there will be a one-third reduction in staff, and funding will be reduced on a similar basis." The situation by the time the site development strategy plan was published in July 2002 and made public in August 2002, was very different. That is the time that coincides with the extension of AWEML's contract to 25 years which was announced in early 2003. That would suggest that sometime in that two-year period a decision was made to have substantial investment in Aldermaston.

  Q9  Mr Jones: I do not disagree with that. That is fact but the point that both the unions and management were making was that, if we were to take the decision in future to have the open debate about whether we should have a new generation of warheads, you could not do that without investment in not only, as Mr Hancock has said, the buildings, for safety reasons, but also in personnel, on the basis that the average age of the workforce there was getting near to the retirement age. That investment is needed, if in the future we are going to take the open debate rather than get a situation whereby we could not extend the life or have a new generation because we would not have the people there to do it.

  Ms Jones: Yes, but I would suggest that there is a difference between maintaining the scientific, intellectual and other capacity to be able to develop nuclear weapons and a decision that we will develop nuclear weapons.

  Q10  Mr Jones: That has not been taken yet but I am saying that if you do not have the scientists and the people with the intellectual know-how to do it in the future, you cannot take the decision to extend the life or create a new generation. You do not have the people there if they have all retired.

  Ms Jones: I think we are probably going to be at cross-purposes here, but I would refer you to one of the recommendations previously made by this Committee in the last report, that said you were not convinced that the building work on the Orion laser and various other things should have gone ahead before a parliamentary decision was made.

  Mr Jones: That is a bit of selective quoting, I think.

  Q11  Chairman: Do you agree that the decision in 2000 to reduce the number of workers that you referred to is not, of itself, incompatible with the need to change the age profile that the Government has talked about in recent months?

  Ms Jones: Yes.

  Q12  Chairman: Thank you. Mr Kent?

  Mr Kent: I would just like to say that the reason I am silent about this is I would like an opportunity to challenge some of the fundamental assumptions.

  Q13  Chairman: Yes, you will get the opportunity.

  Mr Kent: I not just concerned about the nuts and bolts. Indeed in section 6.3 it talks about building the submarines abroad as a possibility, if the submarines want the warheads. Missiles we already buy. So there are wider issues in the nuts and bolts than perhaps come out about what is or is not happening at Aldermaston.

  Q14  Chairman: You will have that opportunity. We do not worry about witnesses being silent because they will usually get opportunities later during the course of the evidence session. Let us give it to you now. I will give each of you the opportunity to do this, but perhaps we could start with you, Mr Kent. I wonder if you could briefly summarise your reaction to the White Paper, please.

  Mr Kent: I think it is very disappointing. I think it is unimaginative. I do not think it faces the threats that this country and the world face in the next century in any evaluative way. It assumes things which it fails to prove. It constantly talks about deterrents: who is being deterred, how they are being deterred and with what they are being deterred. It slips in somewhere the old reference to "nuclear first-use" which is not nuclear deterrence, it is nuclear war fighting but that has just sort of slipped through without comment. It uses terms like "recognised" in a praiseworthy or commendable sense: "we are a recognised nuclear power". That is a sleight of hand because we are only recognised in the sense that when the NPT was signed there were five countries with nuclear weapons. It was simply a matter of fact. It was stated. It gave no approval to those. In fact it required those to negotiate in good faith to get rid of them. So there are a number of problems and there is also a complete misrepresentation. I am not a lawyer and I believe you will be seeing lawyers but there is a complete misrepresentation about what the International Court of Justice said about nuclear weapons. It said that in only one particular circumstance they could not make up their minds: in the extreme circumstances of self-defence in which the very survival of the state would be at stake. Only in those circumstances were they unable to make up their minds. Everything else, they said, including the survival of the state, had to conform to humanitarian law, but here in the White Paper there is a statement that the ICJ had rejected the idea that nuclear weapons had been illegal. It did not reject. It did not make a decision on that point. That is really rather important. Most of all, I think it is the insurance argument and the sense that somehow Britain just sits and watches—says Blair: "in the absence of an agreement to disarm multilaterally". It is our obligation to promote such activities and we are not doing that. The bit of the ICJ that was not quoted in the White Paper is the second section in 96: "There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control." In good faith. We do not believe that to continue with British nuclear weapons, while not negotiating, can possibly be construed as being in good faith. We think there are other much more important threats to our security than the remote possibility that somebody sufficiently irrational to use nuclear weapons but sufficiently rational to be deterred by our possession of them might at some stage appear on the future world map affecting us. In the context of a world of nine countries with, there are 182 countries that do not have nuclear weapons, which are not living in terror and fear that they are about to be attacked by somebody. I think we should listen to Dr Blix and listen to Kofi Annan. For us to pursue nuclear security is a green light to other countries to take the same road. I hope that was brief enough. Thank you for giving me the chance to speak.

  Q15  Chairman: It was a great pleasure. Ms McDonald.

  Ms McDonald: Right from the beginning I find the White Paper confusing. I think the title should be "The Future of Nuclear Weapons in the United Kingdom". I cannot cope with this idea of the words "deterrence" and "weapon" being interchangeable because they are not. Deterrence is not a weapon, it is an unproven theory. It is a past doctrine that has many elements. I think it is essentially flawed and to keep promoting it as an idea—170 times the word "deterrence" is used in the White Paper—is to confuse people and to make assumptions that cannot really be made. A useful analogy perhaps might be capital punishment. We used to have capital punishment as a deterrent, as I understand it—and shall I say that it was before my time—but when it was abolished there was not a rush of murders on the street. It had been theory, its time had come and it was abandoned as a way of running our affairs. And so it is the same with this idea about nuclear weapons. It cannot be proved that they are a deterrent. We do not expect that we would have been attacked if we did not have them. There is no proof that we would have been. The other thing in the White Paper concerns the offer, it seems, to reduce nuclear weapons from the current number of about 200 or below 200 to 160. I do not see that that is any offer at all because the number of warheads going into Aldermaston, coming back from Scotland for servicing, and the number of warheads being serviced and going back to Scotland do not match. I think it is about 120 warheads have come back from Scotland since 2000 over a six-year period, and in the same period 88 warheads have gone up. These figures obviously are not guesses; they are estimates on evidence that is taken by Nukewatch, which monitors the warhead delivery up and down the country. It is certainly clear from their data that the warheads have already been reduced and probably for logistical, operational or manufacturing reasons, but, in common with other MoD announcements, any announcement is always made long after the event and so I think that is the case here.

  Q16  Chairman: Mr Ainslie.

  Mr Ainslie: I think, basically, the White Paper is an attempt to try to get Parliament and the public to agree to this proposal, which is to spend £75 billion on weapons of mass destruction that no civilised country would ever use. I am particularly concerned from a Scottish perspective that it will result in continuing to have these dreadful weapons in Scotland for the next 50 years. The second thing, from my point of view, is that, in trying to sell that particular point, which it is very difficult to do, it is patchy and not very coherent in terms of how it is presenting its arguments. One key issue is the whole question of the extent to which these are weapons under NATO, independent or—which I think is what it is really about—bilateral Anglo-American use. There are references to NATO but not put very strongly. In the exchange of letters, Bush's letter only refers to it being assigned to NATO. Tony Blair's letter has the standard proviso: in extreme circumstances used in defence of our own vital interests. If this is about NATO, then it should be saying what NATO's nuclear policy is. NATO nuclear policy has always been rather incoherent because it is perched between different views either side of the Atlantic. It is particularly problematical at the moment. It is not really saying, "Here is what NATO believes and here is how we fit into this" which Rifkind's statement in 1993 did start with. That is about the last policy document we have. When Malcolm Rifkind was speaking in November 1993 he did start off with saying, "NATO has this view and here is how we fit in with it." This does not do that. My own feeling, basically, is that NATO use has a fundamental problem, because you need agreement in the consultation process. That agreement, in most circumstances, is unlikely to be there, so the allies are unlikely to agree in the NATO consultation process to authorise nuclear use. I have real problems with any concept in independence, partly in trying to see how they work politically, but the other side is that I have done a lot of work on the software and the software is a critical vulnerability. The operational independence is potentially undermined by reliance on the American software. That is not to say that it definitely is, but it potentially is. If use under NATO is not very likely and independent use is not very likely, where you can see this system working is in a bilateral Anglo-American operation. Then it will work quite well. But this is not saying that and it is not presenting the case for that.

  Q17  Chairman: Sian Jones.

  Ms Jones: My colleagues have made most of the remarks, so I will keep my comments very brief. It is very interesting that the White Paper was published before the Prime Minister announced that he wanted a further debate on whether we are a war-fighting or peace-keeping country because surely the possession and deployment of nuclear weapons is actually crucial to that debate as to what sort of country we are. The White Paper itself is really looking back to a time that we lived through and a time where we worked towards what is now enshrined in the 1997 INF Treaty, the ridding of US cruise missiles from British soil. It is that whole Cold War argument and the outmoded concept of deterrence that is repeatedly referred to throughout the White Paper. The security agenda has changed. There is some admission of that but there is a failure in the White Paper to explore the real security needs that are being increasingly defined by people from outside of the nuclear weapons' countries. That is a security agenda which is based on the need for food, for shelter, for water, for the right to education, for the right to adequate hospital treatment, the sort of agenda that is coming from the peoples of the global south and the sort of agenda that is not even mentioned in the White Paper. We believe that the White Paper should have been extended to discuss what we mean by security without making a decision. The only other point I would make is that the possibility of other options really are dismissed within the White Paper itself. In particular, the option to not replace Trident is not even mentioned. On the point that was made about legality, I would just add that the White Paper continuously refers to the need for nuclear weapons to safeguard our vital interests. It does not once mention "to be used in self-defence", which, as we have heard, is the only point on which the ICJ were unable to reach a unanimous decision as to whether the use of nuclear weapons would be unlawful. Therefore, this whole paper is without the commitment made by the UK to the NPT. Finally, on the question about warheads I would refer you to Tony Blair's speech, that the apparent cut in the number of warheads is not really an example of the commitment to a peaceful, fairer and safer world, it is a matter of expediency. In Tony Blair's speech he refers to it as a measure of efficiency.

  Q18  Chairman: Thank you. Mr Kent, do you want to add something?

  Mr Kent: I would like to add to what I previously said. First of all, technically there is nothing in the document which raises the question that submarines might become vulnerable within the next 40 years. I do not think it is at all inconceivable that the seabed will be sufficiently monitored to know where people are. That is a possibility. Secondly, there is nothing in the document that really would inspire anybody to think treaties have the slightest effect in getting rid of weapons. We have a bacteriological convention; we have a chemical convention. They are not perfect at all. They need to be hardened up in all sorts of ways. There is no reference to the fact that there is a draft treaty on the table at the UN, lodged by Costa Rica, with an enormous amount of technical expertise in it which covers inspection, verification, criminality, satellite observation and all the things that will be required. None of that is there at all. It is just: "We are here in this world. There is no disarmament—too bad—so we are going to have Trident." I think that is a pretty weak sort of way of dealing with such a serious issue.

  Q19  Linda Gilroy: I would like to follow through on a couple of points from the statements that have been made. First of all, to Mr Ainslie. The statement you made about the software, you have also made in one of the papers you have submitted to us, that reliance on American software for all aspects of targeting undermines nuclear independence. Can you tell us a bit more about what your research has shown and the sort of questions you think we ought to be putting to the industry people and academics when we question them about that?

  Mr Ainslie: There are two sides of the software system. There is the shore-based bit of the software and the submarine end. At the submarine end it is clearly entirely American. At the shore-based end some of the key components come from the United States. In some of the American contracts is an insight into the process. The Americans produce software models for their own Trident system. Those models include information which is classified to such a level that it cannot be given to Britain, so those bits are then taken out and that reduced version is given to Britain as the software models. These are then assessed in the software facility that Britain has to see if they will work and there are other things added. My point is that, although there is access to the process, because the gaps are there, for reasons of security, I do not believe they can then assess it to the extent of being certain that that software has not been crippled in such a way that would reduce restricted use in particular circumstances. The background to this is that the software is extremely complex. In order to get the accuracy that Trident requires, there is a very large software infrastructure in America that supports this. We have not duplicated that. You have talked about what we build and what we do not build. We have some ability to check the software; we have not duplicated it. We do not have our own experts who can do all these tasks.

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