Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 135-139)


23 JANUARY 2007

  Q135 Chairman: May I begin by welcoming all of you to the evidence session on the strategic nuclear deterrent and may I also welcome some Hungarian parliamentarians who are here to watch what we are doing and to make sure we do it right. To the witnesses, may I give you a particular welcome and may I ask you to introduce yourselves please, perhaps, Professor Garwin, starting with you, and to give just the very briefest background about you and then we will ask you about the White Paper and the strategic nuclear deterrent.

Professor Garwin: I am Richard Garwin, a physicist and a long-time member of the President's Science Advisory Committee and head of various military panels, including its Naval Warfare Panel in 1971, the Submarine Warfare Panel and the Aircraft Panel, and I have been working with nuclear weapons since 1950 to the present day.

  Mr Ingram: I am Paul Ingram from the British American Security Information Council. I have written a few papers on the Trident replacement and was the author of the Green Paper Decisions over the Future of British Nuclear Weapons, which I believe all members were sent at the beginning of December, before the White Paper came out.

  Dr Willett: I am Lee Willett, Head of the Maritime Studies Programme at the Royal United Services Institute or RUSI. I am responsible for running what we are doing on the deterrent issue and I am one of the co-authors of a forthcoming paper on the White Paper and our thinking on what it means.

  Dr Pullinger: I am Stephen Pullinger. I am Executive Director of the International Security Information Service (Europe) which is based in Brussels. Whilst I have been there for 18 months, I did spend 15 years in this country working on these issues and that is why I have retained my interest and that is why I am here today.

  Dr Stocker: I am Jeremy Stocker. I am a consulting research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies where I have been working on a paper entitled, "Nuclear Deterrence in the United Kingdom", which will be published at the end of next month.

  Q136  Chairman: May I begin by asking each of you to summarise, in two or three sentences, your basic reaction to the Government's White Paper so that we have got an idea of the general approach you take to this White Paper.

  Dr Stocker: I think, in the main, the White Paper gets things absolutely right. There are some unanswered questions, but, in terms of the decisions it has made about the future of the deterrent capability, I think it is the right answer, albeit probably an inevitable conclusion. What is missing from the White Paper is a broader strategy to tackle proliferation which ties in with deterrence, but also diplomatic and defensive measures into a more all-encompassing strategy to counter proliferation and that is what the White Paper does not address.

  Dr Pullinger: I think, following on from that, my essential critique is really to do with the non-proliferation aspects of this question and I think the White Paper underestimates the threat that is posed currently to the non-proliferation regime. Accordingly, it does not reorder nuclear priorities to put exactly non-proliferation at the top of the list, rather that it still seems to be thinking about deterrence primarily as the threat which has to be met. There is a reordering which needs to take place which is not reflected here and the White Paper does not make the connection between denuclearisation and non-proliferation. To me, non-proliferation can only ultimately be successful if we also follow the parallel path and integrated path indeed of denuclearisation. Therefore, what I would have liked to have seen was our nuclear weapons policy, our nuclear doctrine and our non-proliferation policy all in synchronicity and I do not see that in this White Paper.

  Dr Willett: I think it is fair to say that the White Paper is arguably the most comprehensive, open and official review of Britain's nuclear deterrence policy and policy on capability that we have seen. It makes no significant changes to the Government's policy, the British policy, but it does clarify some important aspects of the Government's position. It is a White Paper, not a Green Paper, so rightly it makes a policy recommendation and I support the recommendation which has been put forward, although I would admit that there are certain significant caveats and significant questions which still need to be looked at. The Cold War may be over, but arguably the nuclear age is not and one of the challenges of the White Paper is trying to explain these issues when some of the issues are so sensitive to national security that they cannot really be put forward in a public document. There are some unanswered questions on deterrence, how it works and the scenarios that we think it may or may not be relevant for, why we need a deterrent and the political implications of that and political influence, the cost and international relations with other parties. One of the big things, I think, of course is that what we have with the White Paper is a process where a series of decisions has set in motion a process for renewing the deterrent through building a new class of submarines and through the decision to buy into the US Life Extension Missile Programme, but it is important to point out that arguably the real decision does not come until the middle of the next decade when decisions on submarine numbers, submarine build, missiles beyond the LE and the new warhead need to be made.

  Mr Ingram: Picking up on Lee's point there, that this is one of the most comprehensive statements by any government on nuclear weapons policy, I would underline that I think that is to be welcomed. The problem of course when you expose the nuclear weapons policy in this way is that it highlights a number of contradictions and discrepancies and I believe that the White Paper does that and there are contradictions within it. I would very strongly endorse Stephen Pullinger's point about non-proliferation and I would say that this White Paper underlines business as usual which I believe is over-cautious, that it demonstrates a tendency within the Ministry of Defence to over-engineer and over-equip itself for particular tasks, this one being one of them. I think essentially it demonstrates an institutional momentum that has its roots back in the Cold War and I do not believe that it demonstrates the new thinking required for the 21st Century.

  Professor Garwin: The written evidence that I and my colleagues have provided deals mostly with the narrow question of maintaining the UK's strategic nuclear force in the post-Cold War world and, for that, we believe the White Paper, the decision to replace the submarines, is highly premature. The US Trident submarines operate two thirds of the time at sea and the UK submarines about one quarter of the time at sea. The lifetime of the US submarines has been extended to 45 years and, by the same token, the ratio of two thirds to one quarter is two and two thirds, so I would expect the UK submarine, from the point of view of wear-out, would last 100 years, I see no reason why they should not last 45 years and, from my experience with defence programmes in the United States, I think the Government is hastening into this decision before the facts are really available to it or to Parliament. The question of steam generators has been raised. Steam generators are an essential component of the nuclear plant both in submarines and in the surface ships, as with stationary power plants throughout the world, but steam generators should be monitored. The US has a programme of improving the water chemistry so that the steam generators, they hope, will last the life of the ship, but it is never guaranteed. Even if one has a replacement programme with submarines coming on stream in 2024, a steam generator may fail before that time and have to be replaced. That is not difficult. One cuts a hole in the hull of the submarine, takes out the steam generator, plugs the tubes if you do not take it out, and the question really is: how much does it cost for these refurbishment programmes over the years, in comparison with a new submarine and for the same purpose, to have the same Trident D5 missiles? That is not like replacing a 20-year-old computer with a modern computer where there is absolutely no comparison about the performance, the power consumption and all those things. This is the same function and it should not necessarily be, so, if one delays the decision for another ten years or 15 years, one may well choose to build a small, single-warhead intercontinental-range missile for the submarines in much smaller submarines and one could have a number of submarines at sea, two instead of one, and still save money on the programme and improve the national security while we are trying to think what these nuclear weapons are for.

  Q137  Chairman: You have reminded me that I should already have thanked you for your written submissions and I am grateful because it has helped to clarify some of the questions that we will need to ask. Arising out of what you said, Mr Ingram, and a bit out of what other people have said about business as usual, do you regard this decision heralded in the White Paper as a replacement of Trident or as a running-on of the same old system, but in different submarines and, therefore, essentially renewal of the existing deterrent?

  Mr Ingram: It is a bit of both. It is a running-on of the existing system, but, given the expected time that it would take to construct a new generation of submarines, I think the intention of the Ministry of Defence is to have a new generation of submarines. Otherwise, it would be very simple and quick simply to restart the production line of the Vanguard class and to construct a new Vanguard class, and that is a construction time of up to five years rather than the 17 years that the White Paper outlines. Therefore, it is a bit of both because we will be deploying, and will continue to deploy, the D5 missile with all the existing warheads, but in a new generation of submarine. One of the points I made in my evidence was that one of the choices which was not outlined in the White Paper and which could have received much more consideration is simply restarting that, of just restarting the production line of the Vanguard class which would reduce the lead-time down to maybe seven or eight years in order to account for some relatively minor modifications. After all, the Vanguard class is not at all out of date and we are not replacing it because the technology is particularly dated; we are replacing it because there is this belief, challenged very eloquently, I believe, by Richard Garwin and myself, that the submarines are wearing out beyond repair after the mid-2020s.

  Q138  Mr Hamilton: Professor Garwin, in your written statement and indeed in your opening remarks, you referred to the possibility that you cut a hole in the side if you wanted and do a bit of engineering work and this of course could extend the life beyond the 30 years. I have got an engineering background in mining for 20 years and I have worked with machinery all my life, but I have never seen any machine that can go beyond its time without major repair. Really the balance has got to be surely the balance of the repair work which is required to do a job or indeed to buy new. Could you expand on your belief that it is quite simply a matter of extending the life by ongoing maintenance?

  Professor Garwin: In fact the submarines are in maintenance for a three-year major refit period and one would expect to have such continuing for the life of the submarine. Now, in principle, as one continues to extend the life, the costs go up and eventually it is cheaper to replace the submarines, but we do not know that and I do not believe the Governments know that either. Very often, the people who make the decisions are not experts and they do not even know to ask the questions and the facts are only established when they are challenged. That is the way it is in the United States and I doubt that it is different over here. Very often, as I explained in my testimony, in connection with the B52 aircraft in the 1960s, the Air Force was saying, "You cannot fly the aircraft beyond 1970". Well, we fixed the wings, we fixed the auto-pilots so that the wings were not subject to so much metal fatigue, we re-engined the airplane and it flies even now and it is a very valuable airplane. The same thing has happened with submarines and other large capital expenditures, so the submarine has the same mission for the future as it has had for the past. One might limit the diving depth ultimately as the submarine accumulates metal fatigue, but one can fix it too. There are many things that can be done and what the Government needs to do, in my opinion, is to share the details of the analyses and the costs.

  Q139  Mr Hamilton: We have four submarines, the United States has more than four submarines. Viewed on a maintenance cost basis, you get an augmentation of the amount of submarines that you have. You were talking of the B52s and, if you had a whole host of B52s, you could actually play with it. We all have to balance, as politicians, the industrial base of the United Kingdom and indeed we have contracts where you can actually develop and maintain contracts for refits or indeed new submarines coming on to base. How do you deal with the maintenance of the ships that go out to sea and indeed being able to keep other ships and doing the maintenance levels which would be required with four submarines?

  Professor Garwin: That was planned and, as I say, the submarines have an easier duty than the US submarines and they have planned major refit intervals. The question of the skills base and the manufacturing plant, that is a big problem, but, if one builds a submarine every four years instead of every two years so one has maybe a surplus of people, that does not run up the cost very much; the cost is not only the people, the cost is the equipment and the steel that is required, so we need to see those numbers. Just because BAE says that 22 months is the cadence that they should have does not mean that the Government cannot place orders at a longer interval and still maintain reasonable skills.

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