Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


16 JANUARY 2007

  Q20  Linda Gilroy: Is the point you are making that somewhere in that software is the capacity to stop in fairly short order the ability of the United Kingdom to target and operate missiles?

  Mr Ainslie: There is a number of ways, if the intention was there, that from the United States end they could do it. The system can almost certainly distinguish between a plan which is produced only within the British system or a plan which is produced within the American system. There are all sorts of levels going in, so they can probably distinguish between those two.

  Q21  Linda Gilroy: Those are assertions and statements. Can you source those for us in some further note?

  Mr Ainslie: Yes. I have written something on this recently, so I can give you a copy of that.

  Q22  Chairman: You say the potential exists for that to happen rather than your having any evidence.

  Mr Ainslie: Precisely. It is a potential vulnerability. Clearly, at levels of classification involved in this it would be very difficult to verify.

  Q23  Mr Hancock: Have you read the previous evidence we have had at the Committee?

  Mr Ainslie: Yes.

  Mr Hancock: We were assured that the guidance and targeting mechanisms were wholly British and were unstoppable if a British Prime Minister gave authorisation for their use—their independent use. When the questions were put to the panel on that day, a number of members seriously questioned whether that was an accurate interpretation. The answer came back that, irrefutably, there was no possibility whatsoever, once the command to fire a missile from a British submarine was given, that firing could in any way be impeded by a source outside of the summary or outside of the chain of command in the United Kingdom. I am a little surprised, to say the least, that you believe there is evidence—not just the possibility but the evidence—to suggest that is a possibility. We were given a cast-iron assurance. It was the only thing that determined whether or not we had an independent deterrent.

  Chairman: I think you said there was not evidence that it was possible but that it was a potential.

  Q24  Mr Hancock: We were told it was not possible. That is different from potential. When somebody says, sitting where you are, that it is impossible to do that, then we have to either prove them wrong by saying this is how it can be done or we have to accept that. I am thinking that there is a real difference between possible and potential.

  Mr Ainslie: If I could explain in terms of he authorisation process. In terms of a decision being made by the Prime Minister, all the way down to some form of instruction reaching a missile technician in front of his computer, I would quite happily believe that is an entirely British process that cannot be interfered with. Through the missile technician or electronically or however it goes, once the authorisation message goes into the fire control system computer, it is then running. There is no doubt about this: there is no end of contracts. The fire control system software is purchased from the United States and the shore-end stuff that processes the target data is also reliant on American computer models. I have no doubt about that at all. Whether there is the potential for them to change it is a more complex issue. I have no doubt about that at all.

  Q25  Linda Gilroy: I am interested in whether you think built into the ownership and operation of the software by the United Kingdom is the capacity in short order to interfere in a short space of time, rather than years, with the ability of the Prime Minister to issue an order to fire a missile and for that to happen.

  Mr Ainslie: There are ways of doing it. One is in terms of the difference between a Co-ordinated plan or a uniquely British plan. The second, certainly in terms of the Russian scenario, is dependent on 12-hourly weather data from the United States and whether that 12-hourly weather data could be used as an on/off switch. In order to get the accuracy, they have to have the weather over the target area and that is transmitted every 12 hours from America.

  Q26  Mr Jones: Do you have any evidence that this is the case? I am a very simple soul myself: I tend to go on facts and things put in front of me rather than suppositions. You say you have a paper. In that, is there some evidence?

  Mr Ainslie: It is a vulnerability. The thing that flagged this up to me was the Audit Office report in 1998. The UK should have the ability to produce targeting and effectiveness software. They were having difficulties doing that. I basically have been told from America, from the analysts, that the British expertise was negligible. The official MoD line is: "No, we have sorted those problems and brought in contractors." It was being flagged up at those early stages in the Trident process that this is maybe a key vulnerability.

  Q27  Mr Jones: There is a big jump from what you have just said to then saying that somehow America has a technological veto or electronic veto over the independence.

  Mr Ainslie: I am saying: Why is it considered essential for the United Kingdom to have that independent targeting capability? Why was that considered essential in the 1980s? Because we do not have it.

  Chairman: I think we have taken this as far as we can. Do any of your further questions arise under later aspects?

  Linda Gilroy: I will come back to them at the end. They possibly do, about the impact of the non proliferation treaty.

  Q28  Chairman: That certainly does come back at the end. I have a quick question—with I hope a quick answer—about openness and the openness of the decision-making process that we are currently going through. The Prime Minister says that it has never been as open a process as this: everything in the past has been conducted behind closed doors and perhaps not even getting as far as the Cabinet. What would your comment be on this?

  Mr Kent: My comment would be that I could understand that the technical details may have to be discussed behind closed doors but I can see absolutely no reason why the major principles of the issue should not be discussed as widely as possible in a democracy. Is this the right way to proceed for our security? It is not a closed-door issue. It should be an open-door issue.

  Q29  Chairman: That is what we are doing now.

  Ms Jones: That is exactly what is going on now.

  Q30  Chairman: Ms McDonald.

  Ms McDonald: As I understand it, in the White Paper it says the Government decision to replace Trident has been taken. All the supporting views that they give are to saying that this is what we want to do. That is their position. In the White Paper there is no mention of consultation. Although it says the Prime Minister said in a parliamentary answer on 28 June that there would be an announcement of the means of consultation when the White Paper was published, we are still awaiting those means, and there is no consultation as far as I understand it in the normal sense and the understood meaning of the word.

  Linda Gilroy: The White Paper sets out the Government's position on it.

  Q31  Chairman: Sian Jones.

  Ms Jones: You opened that by saying we are discussing it, but we are discussing this in a separate process which began before the publication of the White Paper. This was an initiative of the Defence Select Committee. We know that the Government decided at the beginning of that process not to engage in it and issued a statement and then said that they would not be attending to produce evidence. Our questions would be very much around the failure of the Government to be transparent and to come before you and inform you—and I am speaking, as always, about Aldermaston, because it is the only area in which I have any expertise—of the measures they have taken to date that take us down the road towards the fact—in our understanding and belief—that very many aspects of that decision are being made and that what is going to be put before Parliament is the end of a process of decision-making that has resulted in the preparation of the options that are included in the White Paper. One of the other things I would add is that, because our colleagues in the US have far more freedom of information under their Freedom of Information Act, they are able to find out details of the US and UK collaboration and various other processes involved under mutual defence agreements between the US and the UK. In a way the evidence that John has cited in some respects and that we cite in our submission does not come from transparency and openness by our Government; it comes from a process with the American Freedom of Information Act that allows people to find out what is going on at Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia and the other laboratories with which Aldermaston works.

  Mr Jones: Will you give any credit to the Government, who are going to have a vote for the first time on this in Parliament?

  Mr Jenkin: That is not quite correct. There was a vote in 1982.

  Q32  Mr Jones: Is it not a major step forward? The supposition is that Parliament is going to vote for this. What happens if we vote against it? If you are to give politicians options or people options to do something, surely you have to do the preparation beforehand—which is what is happening at Aldermaston.

  Mr Kent: It is an advance on 1947, undoubtedly, where the decision was taken secretly and announced about two years later. It is an advance but it is still not what is needed in a democracy.

  Q33  Mr Jones: In the Bruce Kent world, what would be the perfect way of dealing with this?

  Mr Kent: I think to open some of the issues which are simply missing in the paper: to discuss the things that we are all concerned about—and not just us but Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the rest of them—on the threats that face our planet. That discussion is not being conducted. The assumption is: deterrence works, full stop, and we do not have to do anything else except rely on it.

  Q34  Mr Hancock: The Prime Minister, probably going back in his own short memory to the time when he supported the campaign you were leading, said that he fully accepted that people had a different view from the one he now holds about this issue, but he also stated quite clearly in the White Paper that those who hold that view and who question the decision, need to explain why disarmament in itself by the UK would help our security. I think that is a question he would pose to all of us who would believe that replacement of the submarines is not in the best defence interests of the country. I would be interested to know your views on that. The Prime Minister invited us to give our views and today we are giving you the opportunity.

  Mr Kent: If I may speak on this, I think disarmament by ourselves alone would put us into the position of Sweden or New Zealand or other countries who are not at immediate threat of some awful enemy with nuclear weapons. Disarmament on its own would be a positive step, but it is not disarmament on its own we are calling for. We are calling for multilateral negotiations aimed at the elimination of nuclear weapons from the world surface and that requires a completely different kind of political and security structure and an awful lot of new thinking which is completely absent. Mr Blair has changed his mind; many people have. That is up to them. They have to face the issues of today and to answer the kind of questions we are asking.

  Q35  Mr Hancock: Does your response to my question not beg the question: Over how long would you say that process takes? In the meantime, do you secure your own security by maintaining what you have until the climate is right for multilateral disarmament?

  Mr Kent: First of all, there is no process. Despite the fact that there is a clear legal obligation, the 2005 NPT review conference ended in complete failure. The 2000 conference produced some sensible proposals which have not been operated on. There are no meetings in the Geneva Committee on disarmament. There is no proposal anywhere. Despite Blix's call for a world summit on nuclear disarmament, no response from this Government. I cannot say there is an indefinite long process because the process has not started. It could be quite quick, like a landmines treaty, if we wanted to make it quick, but we have not wanted to make it quick. The assumption behind your question is that nuclear weapons do defend us interim while this is going on. I do not believe they do any more.

  Q36  Mr Hancock: The Prime Minister's question, Mr Kent, was quite specific. He said in the foreword in the White Paper: "Those who question this decision need to explain why disarmament by the UK would help our security." By that, he means the argument over yes or no to the replacement of his submarines. It is not about global disarmament; he is talking about the United Kingdom. That is the question that a lot of people out there would like to have answered.

  Mr Kent: We do not believe it gives us security, it is an illusion of security, but to decide not to replace Trident helps our security because, if we signal up that in 20 years we will not have them, there is the chance of serious negotiations with other countries that might start to take a different road, including, of course, the existing nuclear powers. It is not a tomorrow security but it is a process that has to begin.

  Q37  Chairman: Would any of you like to add anything to that.

  Ms McDonald: Yes, we would be safer to give up nuclear weapons because we would then not be a potential threat for starting a nuclear war. That is what other countries see Britain as, and that would be something to undo if we are serious about building a world that meets everyone's real security needs.

  Q38  Mr Hancock: Do you seriously believe, Ms McDonald, that there are countries which believe the United Kingdom would start a nuclear war?

  Ms McDonald: We do not have a policy of no first-use, so we must be prepared to start one.

  Q39  Mr Crausby: The CND's alternative White Paper: Safer Britain, Safer World effectively argues that there is no current nuclear threat faced by the United Kingdom. In fact it opens up with the fact that the most pressing threat currently in the UK is that of international terrorism. The Government's White Paper tries to counter that in the sense that it says some companies might seek in future to sponsor nuclear terrorism from their soil. It goes on to say, "We can only deter such threats through the continued possession of nuclear weapons." It effectively says that conventional capabilities cannot have the same deterrent effect. How do you answer that argument, that there really is a terrorist-linked nuclear threat that can only be countered by a nuclear deterrent of our own?

  Mr Kent: I think they are scratching around to try to find a way of justifying the threat of nuclear weapons against a territorial entity. Since they clearly cannot do that against the terrorists, they try to find a state that is harbouring terrorists to do that to. Not many terrorists are going to have a flag up in a state saying, "We are now harboured by X country or Y country" so it is a bit tenuous as a reason. Why we cannot deal with countries that are supporting terrorism, let alone nuclear, in other ways that are non nuclear, I do not know. Economic, political, even military pressure or conventional military pressure are all ways in which we can deal with such states.

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