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Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


16 JANUARY 2007

  Q60  Mr Crausby: Do you really think that it would have any impact on Iran and North Korea whether we abandoned or not. Quite a small proportion of the world has nuclear weapons, and I should imagine that Iran and North Korea very much see that America is the major threat from their point of view, and they may well be justified in that. Do you really believe that our decision to abandon nuclear weapons would have any impact at all on their decisions?

  Mr Kent: I repeat, our decision, I think, should be in the context of calling for global nuclear abolition negotiations. If someone like Henry Kissinger, not exactly a dove, starts saying now is the time to begin this, I think we should start listening and sitting up and taking notice. It is not just us, we should be promoting this globally while we are saying that in 20 years' time we will not have them.

  Q61  Mr Crausby: Do other witnesses want to comment on that? It is quite an important issue, this beginning of non-proliferation.

  Mr Ainslie: The way to deal with this proliferation problem is internationally via the global community. It is not Britain alone trying to say how we deal with this; we want to be doing what we can to strengthen the international moves. At the end of the day, the fundamental question is: why do people not use nuclear weapons? You make this argument about it being a deterrent, but I think the main reason people do not use nuclear weapons in any sort of military sense is because there is a taboo against their use, it is generally considered not to be the done thing to do, and the important thing is to strengthen the extent to which it is unacceptable for any country to use nuclear weapons. That global general consensus and feeling we want to make stronger, and us using the arguments that are in the White Paper is undermining that.

  Ms Jones: I would concur with what both Bruce and John have said about this being an opportunity for us to take a different road, and I would refer you to the International Crisis Group's summary of threats to the world that was published in December. They noted that the UK, in publishing the White Paper and in failing as a nuclear weapons state to take the opportunity to take a lead on disarmament at this particular time, was one of the things that they counted as a threat to world security. I would also add a very tangential remark. When we protest at Aldermaston we send press releases to local press and to news feeds, and we have this thing called Google Search which sends us little ticks when we appear in various publications, and it is very interesting, the number of publications in Iran which seem to be interested in the fact that people are demonstrating outside Aldermaston against the development of new nuclear weapons. This may be propaganda, I do not know what these newspapers are, but it is not that these people are unaware of the potential for developments here and it is time to start extending out, opening out and saying that there are people here who are questioning the need for new weapons, as there are in countries throughout world, and there is a significant block within the non-nuclear weapons states who have been trying to push for some meaningful process to come out of the NPT.

  Q62  Chairman: Ms McDonald.

  Ms McDonald: Firstly, I think that the British Government is responsible for what Britain does. You mention what threats other countries may pose, such as the United States' stockpile of nuclear weapons. We are not responsible for those, so I do not think we can speak to that, but what we are responsible for is trying to influence our own Government, as you are, and it seems to me that nuclear disarmament is the only action that will remove the justification for countries to waste billions of their money, even if they can develop, produce and maintain such weapons. So, that is our responsibility and that is what we need to remove, the justification from the British point of view.

  Q63  Mr Crausby: I want to know what effect this would have on governments, not the good people of Iran. I accept that the good people of Iran, just as the good people of this country, would be happy to see the elimination of nuclear weapons without the threat. Anyone right-minded would want to see a non-nuclear world, but what effect would our decision to abandon Trident have on the Government of Iran and, indeed, those counties sitting there waiting in the wings to see whether there is going to be any real proliferation?

  Mr Kent: It entirely depends on what goes with that decision. We would perhaps invite a delegation from Iran to come and talk with us about non-nuclear progress on both sides. I think it would be very helpful. It is not just a question of us saying "No", it is a question of the political context into which it fits. Nobody expected a Landmines Treaty to come about, but it did come about. You say everyone wants a nuclear-free world. I am afraid that is really, up until quite recently, not true. A large number of people in America and this country believe absolutely implicitly that nuclear weapons for ever and ever are the answer to our security, and now that is changing. So a nuclear-free world is not something that everyone has been about in different ways.

  Q64  Mr Crausby: I think I said "all right-minded people would want a nuclear-free world"?

  Mr Kent: Thank you. All right.

  Q65  Linda Gilroy: It sounds to me very much as if Bruce Kent is taking a multilateral approach towards disarmament. Is that how you would characterise the statement you have just made?

  Mr Kent: Absolutely. I think it is a wonderful opportunity to point out that in 1978 this country and the world at large, in the first special session, called on all countries to proceed to disarmament unilaterally, bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally, and that has been the CND's position from the beginning. Nevertheless, it has been polarised by the media into, "CND are only unilateral and you are only multilateral—"you" being anybody who is opposed to the CND—and that is nonsense.

  Q66  Linda Gilroy: Can I pursue that a little further in terms of how long you would see this process taking. You have said we could say to people that we will not renew our deterrent in 20 years' time, but if I can just take you back to the opening statement, or proposition, which the Chairman put where we are really talking about a submarine platform. I am sure you have read the evidence we took in our last inquiry and we have a very short window of time, according to the evidence we took and accepted, in terms of maintaining our ability to produce a submarine that will carry the deterrent. If you accept that, then surely you also would have to accept that we would have to make a unilateral commitment to disarmament, because we would, in the course of the process you have just described, almost certainly lose our ability to produce the platform.

  Mr Kent: In terms of the timetable, the Mayor of Hiroshima's campaign is based on the famous 2020, that it is going to take until that sort of time to bring a treaty, observable, monitored, effective, controlling fissile material, inspections and all the rest of it, so it is a long lead-time. You are pointing out that we have got a short time to make a decision. I do not know the technicalities, but I point out what I said in the beginning, that there is even a hint in this document that we could buy the submarines from somebody else.

  Q67  Linda Gilroy: I do not think so. I think that is purely and simply saying that we may need to maintain the sovereign capability. There are only three countries in the world that can produce platforms, and I am sure we would not be buying them from Russia.

  Mr Kent: No, but we could buy them from the United States, as we buy a lot of the other equipment from the United States. I think that we should not be pushed by the technicalities of our industrial base, as it were. There are other ways of nuclear deterrents, apart from a Trident equivalent submarine, if we wanted to continue.

  Q68  Willie Rennie: I have sympathy with what you are saying about the negotiations because I think the Government has fallen short in terms of pushing for a new round of negotiations; but do you really think, with the reputation of George Bush and Tony Blair abroad just now and international relations, that this is the right time to start those negotiations? Do you really think that Iran and North Korea would come to the table and start negotiating?

  Mr Kent: I do not think those two gentlemen are the right people to put forward as the pioneers of negotiation, and I think that it is an open field on both sides as to who might best do it. It is not your subject, but I was quite surprised that Gordon Brown hung his hat on the British independent nuclear deterrent post in the way that he did. He had an opportunity to wait a bit before doing something else. So, no, I do not think those two are very attractive, and they are not here forever, are they?

  Q69  Willie Rennie: But they are the main players just now and you are talking about negotiations?

  Mr Kent: One is going to go quite quickly, the other is going to go fairly quickly, so I think that it is a good opportunity.

  Ms McDonald: I was going to add, this is exactly the problem that has been identified. There is a rush to make a decision whilst the present Prime Minister is in position, and so on, and yet there is the long timescale of building submarines, by which time George Bush will have gone, and so on. Some reasonable delay at this stage may clear the water for a safer world.

  Q70  Chairman: I have a quick proposition. Would you agree that the decision by South Africa to abolish its nuclear weapons has had no observable impact on proliferation attempts by countries like North Korea?

  Mr Ainslie: Basically, no. My understanding is that, having got rid of nuclear weapons, South Africa then played an important role in the subsequent rounds of the NPT Conference. The old South African regime could never have done that. At the end of the day, there is a primary focus for how nuclear proliferation is dealt with. I think the next one is 2010, and South Africa was able to play a more substantial role in that having made that decision.

  Q71  Chairman: The ability of South Africa to play that role in those negotiations, though, does not seem to have had an observable impact on North Korea, does it?

  Mr Ainslie: The 13 steps, which is what we are talking about, was the result of the NPT process—that was the 1995 thing—so it is a step forward. We then took a step back in the 2000 NPT Review Conference. That is the problem.

  Q72  Chairman: Two thousand or 2005?

  Mr Ainslie: Two thousand and five.

  Q73  Chairman: Because I thought 2000 produced what for you would be the welcome news that the decision to get rid of nuclear weapons should be within a short timescale?

  Mr Ainslie: I am sorry; I am getting the two dates mixed up.

  Mr Kent: Two thousand was the 13 steps.

  Q74  Chairman: Two thousand good, 2005 bad.

  Mr Kent: Two thousand and five was a failure.

  Q75  Mr Borrow: Perhaps I can move on to the issue of what disarmament has already taken place. Certainly since the end of the Cold War the number of warheads that the UK has stockpiled has been reduced by about 75% and, certainly if the further reduction anticipated in the White Paper goes ahead, that will be a 50% reduction in the ten years since 1997. Are those reductions welcomed by yourselves?

  Mr Kent: Certainly they are welcomed, and, if they were pointing towards nuclear disarmament globally, even more welcome, but what we are talking about, is it not, is 48 warheads at sea at any one time, each one of which, potentially, is 10 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb? I think talking about the reduction of warheads is a kind of good housekeeping. There is no point spending fortunes on thousands of violent weapons when you can do it with 50 or five. Actually one, I think, if it could be deliverable, is a sufficient deterrent, if you believe in nuclear deterrents; so it is welcome, certainly.

  Q76  Mr Borrow: Would you accept then that of the five major nuclear powers the stockpile in the UK is the least, with perhaps 1% of the world's stockpile, and that, despite the reductions in the UK stockpile or since the end of the Cold War, those sorts of reductions have not been seen by the other four major powers and, therefore, there has not been, if you like, a multilateral response to reductions in nuclear weapons by the UK Government which could lead to a new round of further reductions if we are seeking a multilateral nuclear disarmament as the end result? Are you as disappointed as I am that my government over the last ten years has made reductions and got rid of one whole weapons system and yet other nuclear powers have made very little progress in that direction?

  Ms McDonald: The thing is they will not have seen them as disarmament measures because they have not been disarmament measures, they have been measures to remove old weapons that have become obsolete and they have been measures of efficiency, measures of logistical arrangements that make sense in the military. There was never any stage that we reached the original 512 capability number of warheads for Trident because it was actually impossible in the way that Aldermaston is configured. So all the reductions that there have been so far have been for logistical reasons, and I do not think they have been identified by informed observers in other countries, and certainly by NukeWatch, as being disarmament. We do have to look for real disarmament measures because it has got to come with the language of disarmament. We have not used the language, we are not in negotiations, we are not working for disarmament. For politicians it is language than counts, and that is where there is a huge gap.

  Q77  Mr Borrow: Are you saying, in fact, that reducing the number of warheads does not lead to multilateral disarmament and non-proliferation and that the only thing that the UK can do to assist the process of getting rid of nuclear weapons in the world is to unilaterally get rid of these nuclear weapons and then Trident: that there is no way in which the UK can reduce the number of weapons whilst still retaining nuclear weapons but reduce them to a minimum amount in the hope of getting a positive response from other nuclear powers and potential nuclear powers? Are you saying there is no halfway house? We either stick with what we have got, which is a minimum amount of nuclear weapons, or we get rid of them and there may be a response? Is that the position that you take?

  Mr Kent: I am saying that "minimum" is a completely confusing word. What does "minimum" mean with nuclear weapons? I think getting rid of nuclear weapons and making steps towards negotiation is the way forward. It is not insignificant that Britain has cut down; it is highly significant if it is pointing in that direction.

  Q78  Mr Hancock: They are not significant, are they, to take your point, because if Britain has a nuclear submarine which has 16 silos, only one ship at sea, one boat at sea at any one time, the maximum number of missiles available to be fired would be 16 plus how many warheads? A maximum of four per missile. You have got 48 missiles actively. To service its need, Britain would need barely 100. Would you agree with that statement?

  Mr Kent: I did not get the end of it. I agree with your numbers of warheads.

  Q79  Mr Hancock: You would have one ship at sea with 16 silos, with a maximum of 48 warheads, sixteen missiles, four per missile. I am sorry, 64 on board. So you would have a situation where you would only need 128 warheads maximum anyway.

  Mr Kent: Yes.

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