Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)


23 JANUARY 2007

  Q160  Mr Jenkin: Are you talking military or political?

  Mr Ingram: Political. Thirdly, it could demonstrate a certain amount of caution on the part of many in the Ministry of Defence to ensure that, at all costs, we have a boat out at sea at any one time, at all costs, and I would say that this is a belt-and-braces approach illustrated within the White Paper, I might add, by the statement, which I believe is quite courageous, that we absolutely require four submarines in order to have one submarine out at any one time when in actual fact the average patrol length of a submarine is over three months. What that is saying essentially is that it takes at least three months to resupply a submarine once it has come back to port which, as I say, I think is a complete belt-and-braces approach. Finally, I think it is institutional momentum which I highlighted at the beginning.

  Q161  Mr Jenkin: We move on to the role of deterrence. The White Paper states that "the fundamental principles relevant to nuclear deterrence have not changed since the end of the Cold War, and are unlikely to change in future", yet arguments to support that thesis are singularly lacking from the White Paper. Is that not rather a shortcoming and would the panel like to comment on whether that is a valid statement?

  Professor Garwin: I think there is very little logic in carrying the so-called deterrent force from the Cold War era into the present. One has to ask: will there be a definable enemy with missile defences, for instance? That would require a lot of nuclear weapons to keep them from what? Well, we do not know and the Prime Minister says it is not knowable, but, as has been indicated, there are many requirements here which are all compounded. One assumes that the Americans and the British will have a falling-out so that the UK has to operate at least one boat at sea all the time because the Americans will never provide the nuclear support. That is very unlikely. It may be that there will be a falling-out and, under those circumstances, then, in order to provide for its own deterrent, the UK will have to operate one boat at sea at all times, but I should say, as for buying in US submarines or Russian submarines, I proposed very seriously when I received the Enrico Fermi Award in 1996 that the US buy tritium from Russia. That was absolutely necessary for our nuclear weapons, but it has a lifetime of 12 years, so you buy it long enough in advance that the stockpile is always topped up and you have then five or eight years to start your own production in case the Russians do not come through with the sales in advance. The same thing is true here, except that the lifetime of a submarine is at least 30 and may be 45 years, so you have a time to start your own production if your supply source raises the price or does not propose to sell you any more.

  Q162  Mr Jenkin: Sorry, but I want to talk about the role of deterrence.

  Dr Pullinger: I think it is a very good question because the public perception of deterrence and our general assumption about nuclear deterrence has always been in the context of the Cold War where we had nuclear weapons in order to deter the Soviet Union, an ideological and potentially hostile power, from attacking us. In that sense, the deterrence scenario is essentially defensive, it is responsive and I would say that it has the greatest capacity for credibility in that sense because, if the survival of the United Kingdom is at stake, then deterrence is increasing its credibility, but that scenario does not exist any more, so we are trying to apply the deterrence theory to the new sorts of scenarios we are likely to be facing in the future. It is not for the Government to speculate about this because I am sure they do all this thinking in Whitehall of particular scenarios which they cannot publish in a White Paper, so I suppose it is the duty of academics and think-tanks to try and think through some of those issues in public.

  Q163  Mr Jenkin: Do you honestly believe that North Korea or China or Russia would behave in the same way as they do now if the United States and the United Kingdom and France no longer possessed nuclear weapons? Are you seriously saying that it has no effect on their behaviour at all?

  Dr Pullinger: No, I was not saying that, no. I certainly would not want it to be a situation in which North Korea and Iran had nuclear weapons and we did not or the United States.

  Q164  Mr Jenkin: Well, then the doctrine of deterrence still applies, does it not?

  Dr Pullinger: What are we deterring them from doing? That is the question. We can contain North Korea and deterrence will play a role in that and we can deter Tehran from taking certain actions in the Middle East, but what I am saying we should try and investigate is a scenario such as that of the Iraq situation. When we were going into Iraq to challenge their weapons of mass destruction programme, if they had actually been armed with nuclear weapons, to what extent would we have been self-deterred from taking serious action against them?

  Q165  Mr Jenkin: Well, we did not rule out a first strike on the Soviet Union when we considered the Soviet Union a threat and they had nuclear weapons.

  Dr Pullinger: But we never directly confronted the Soviet Union because—

  Q166  Mr Jenkin: Thank God!

  Dr Pullinger:— we knew the ramifications of what might happen.

  Q167  Mr Jenkin: Yes, so the doctrine of deterrence is, therefore, quite useful in preventing large-scale wars.

  Dr Pullinger: In terms of Iran, which is the one I am trying to think about, yes, but I am saying that it is going to be a strategy of containment rather than we are going to be prevented from taking physical action for disarming Iran once it has nuclear weapons which can deter us. That is the point.

  Q168  Chairman: You said in your opening comments that there was a gap in the White Paper in relation to the theory of deterrence. What did you mean?

  Dr Willett: Well, I endorse to an extent what Dr Pullinger says in that, as we have been seeing just now, something like the issue of the deterrence theory is a very open-ended question subject to much interpretation and, arguably, it is effectively an academic exercise and it can be very murky in its background and its conclusions.

  Q169  Chairman: Is that different from the past?

  Dr Willett: It has always been the case and, if you look at the White Paper compared to the SDR, for example, there is a far greater discussion of deterrence and its principles than there was in 1998, but it is very difficult for the Government, I think, to delve into it in the White Paper for two reasons. First of all, it may convey any thinking to a potential adversary and, secondly, as I say, it is an academic exercise generally, so the Government may leave its thinking open to intellectual criticism and perhaps a White Paper, being a policy paper, is not the right forum to raise such murky and ill-defined questions. I think on the key point about whether the deterrence does, or does not, work, there are two points worth bearing in mind here. First of all, since the end of the Second World War, we have had the existence of nuclear weapons, but no major state-on-state wars. Yes, there have been major and minor wars by proxy, but there have been no major state-on-state wars. One of the questions to ask here is: does the existence of nuclear weapons mean that we are effectively living with nuclear weapons, but with no major state-on-state war, or, if we get rid of them, are we looking at an increased risk of major state-on-state war? The second point to make is that of course what is new, however, is that we have to have a better understanding of how deterrence works in these new scenarios with new actors in mind and with new future actors in mind. I would disagree that there is no direct threat to the UK at the moment, and the whole point of that is that we just cannot see what threats there will be in 50 years' time. The Third Reich, for example, rose and fell in just 30 years.

  Mr Ingram: Firstly, I disagree. I think the White Paper did put its big toe into the idea of the potential for deterrence and I think that is one of its problems. For example, it raises the possibility of using nuclear weapons to deter state-sponsored terrorism and the very major weakness of that possibility is actually thinking through the genuine scenarios. Let us say, a state supplies a terrorist with nuclear weapons, those terrorists then independently go off and blow up a nuclear weapon in London, Aldermaston comes in, looks at the traces and finds out that this material originated from Tehran or wherever. Are we seriously talking about several weeks, perhaps even months, after this explosion dropping a nuclear weapon on Tehran? It does not bear credibility and this is one of the major weaknesses of trying to extend deterrence into the terrorist situation. Secondly, we all agree, I believe, that we do not actually face today, tomorrow is another issue, but today we do not face that threat, so why do we today have a submarine out at any one time?

  Q170  Mr Jenkin: Can I challenge you on that very point? The reason we do not face that threat today is precisely because we have a submarine on patrol every day. If you took that submarine away and took away the deterrent, then the global politics would change and we would be facing those threats again. Okay, the Americans are in this as well, but that is why the world is like it is.

  Mr Ingram: We could have a debate about that, but what I would focus on particularly is about the submarine being out. If we were to maintain the submarine deterrent, but not have a continuous sub-sea deterrence, which was an option raised by the Committee back in June in its report—

  Mr Jenkin: Are you seriously suggesting—

  Chairman: Just let Mr Ingram answer the question.

  Q171  Mr Hamilton: Chairman, the Committee is not here for a debate.

  Mr Ingram: Exactly, which is why I am trying to avoid the bigger debate. The focus particularly on the continuous at-sea deterrence, if we were to withdraw the boat, I believe, and you can believe differently, I believe that this would have no impact on Britain's security today. It may do in the future, but today it would mean that we could extend the life of the existing system dramatically. Thirdly, in terms of deterrence into the future, this whole idea of the insurance, I think we have to treat our responsibilities as one of the five formally recognised nuclear weapon states in the NPT more seriously. If we go back to our commitments in the year 2000 at the NPT review conference, we see very, very significant and major progress in the agreement of 13 steps.

  Chairman: Mr Ingram, we will be coming on to the NPT in a few minutes' time. We are trying at the moment to explore the role of deterrence.

  Q172  Mr Jenkin: Is there a case, as you suggest, for a comprehensive review of deterrence?

  Dr Stocker: I think there is. To answer your original question about whether there is a gap in the White Paper in terms of it saying that the deterrence had changed or the fundamentals had changed, I think there is a gap there because deterrence and particularly its nuclear dimension is as relevant as it was in the Cold War, but the nature of that deterrence has changed fundamentally. It has changed fundamentally for the UK probably more than anybody else, with the possible exception of France. The context within which we might have to conduct deterrence in the future, other than in the scenario of a resurgence of a hostile Russia, has changed completely and all of the kind of assumptions and policies that we worked out during the Cold War and learned quite painfully and over a protracted period of time, most of those assumptions no longer apply. Deterrence is as salient as it ever was, but it is a very, very different kind of deterrence. I would focus in on one in particular from the UK's point of view, which was that, during the Cold War, we had to deter a much larger, much more powerful and overtly hostile power with relatively slender resources and that meant that we had to threaten to maximise the damage to Soviet society with the resources available. In today's so-called "second nuclear age" where national survival is probably not at stake, threatening to devastate another society in total or in large part is neither appropriate nor credible, so actually deterrence credibility may now be based on our ability to threaten the least amount of damage to another society, but in a scenario in which nuclear weapons are relevant because somebody else is threatening to use nuclear weapons or other WMD.

  Q173  Mr Jenkin: And it would be okay to have this review in public?

  Dr Stocker: I think elements of it, yes. Clearly the MoD is not going to talk about how many missiles or what kilotonnage are aimed at which city and would be used under which scenario, but the White Paper says very little about deterrence. The little bits that it does say, like the independent centre of decision-making which is the Cold War second centre of decision-making reinvented, the studied ambiguity which it makes passing reference to is also a hangover from the Cold War. The White Paper really says very little about deterrence and in order to argue the Government's case and in order to present the policy that would make deterrence more credible to the people we want to deter, I think the Government probably does need to do considerably more in spelling out a deterrence policy as well as a policy for the deterrent, which is actually what the White Paper is all about.

  Q174  Chairman: Dr Stocker, when the White Paper says, "We deliberately maintain ambiguity about precisely when, how and on what scale we would contemplate use of our nuclear deterrent", you would say that was wrong, would you?

  Dr Stocker: As far as it goes, I think that statement is perhaps not right or wrong, it is inevitable. Given the uncertain nature of deterrent requirements, there is a certain inevitability to that. I read that as referring to who we might deter under what circumstances and what we might do to them. That is not the same as discussing deterrence policies and mechanisms and how deterrence might work in the new environment. You do not then have to say, "That means we will drop X number of kilotonnnes on city Y under circumstances Z".

  Dr Willett: To clarify that, again one theory probably does not fit all because in the Cold War days when there was one obvious adversary working out the calculations were easier than working out how a more diverse set of adversaries that we face now, how they may figure that the deterrence works. In any new discussion of the deterrence theory, one model will not fit all. We will need an understanding of how individual states and individual actors work. There are those that argue that nobody is not deterrable in some way, shape or form, but understanding how that works on an individual case-by-case basis is very important. The interesting point you make about the ambiguity issue, of course, is in the Cold War our strategy was based on the certainty that we would respond but now the premise is that because of the numerous and more diverse potential threats, the ambiguity that we might respond is what underpins the deterrence concept. One of the key things that the White Paper raises, and will be important in discussing the deterrents theories, is the whole issue of strategic and sub-strategic deterrence and how that works. Sub-strategic was a post-Cold War reaction to changing circumstances in the late 1990s and there has not been a mention of it in great detail in the White Paper and how that still applies, if at all, whether it is part of our NATO commitment or in other circumstances, for example against WMD threats, will be something that needs to be gone into. There are some questions still and that is a good thing, but it merits discussion in other forums.

  Q175  Chairman: There are lots of questions so, Dr Pullinger, very briefly.

  Dr Pullinger: I was going to talk about the sub-strategic element of the deterrent which is missing from the White Paper but there has subsequently been a Parliamentary answer in response to the question about why the sub-strategic elements of the deterrent are missing and the explanation now is that any use of British nuclear weapons would almost be by definition strategic and I, to be honest, agree with that revision because I think the sub-strategic elements in terms of the signalling to an adversary that you are on the point of going strategic does make a lot of sense in the sorts of scenarios that we are in.

  Mr Jenkin: That is why you cannot keep a submarine in port.

  Q176  Robert Key: Could we turn to the question of the deterrent as an insurance policy and could I invite Dr Willett to answer my first question. In the Prime Minister's foreword to the White Paper, he says: "We believe that an independent British nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future". Do you agree?

  Dr Willett: Absolutely. The insurance policy sound bite, if you like, has been much used and there are those who argue that the whole point of an insurance policy is that you do not cash it in and it is something that helps you after the event, and worrying about what happens after the event is not really what this debate is all about. Certainly I think it is very important that we have this insurance policy in our back pocket when we are talking about the Trident debate because what it does provide is a hedge against a wider variety of threats and perhaps "insurance" is the wrong word but it provides the ability to protect ourselves against, first, nuclear blackmail, secondly, against direct nuclear threats and, thirdly, as I said, as something in our back pocket for this uncertain future. The Government does have a dual-track policy on this deterrent issue of maintaining minimum deterrence whilst also pursuing a multi-lateral approach to arms control and arguably having that insurance policy with a deterrent in your back pocket gives you the credibility to be able to pursue both tracks of that policy.

  Q177  Robert Key: Could I ask Dr Pullinger, do you accept that the public finds the insurance policy argument a persuasive one?

  Dr Pullinger: Yes, I think they do. I have never argued that we should abandon our nuclear weapons while other people's potential threat to us have done, but I think it is only part of the argument of this insurance policy because I think that we do have to prepare to meet the eventuality that we are confronted by another threatening nuclear weapon state, but I do not think that is the primordial nuclear threat that we are going to be facing in the future. I think we are potentially heading towards a world of 12, 15 or 20 nuclear weapon states and that is not just me saying that, the Wall Street Journal in the first week of January, Henry Kissinger, amongst others, said: "We are on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era". I think we should be investing much more political energy in ensuring that we do not fall over the edge. I think our non-proliferation priorities should be much higher. I am not saying abandoning deterrents by any means, but arguably it is no longer the most important part of that. In a world of 15 or 20 nuclear weapon states, you are going to have them deployed in many volatile regions of the world, lots of people, lots of scientists working on the technology, the skills of how to make nuclear weapons that will be producing vast quantities of new weapons grade material which will have to be controlled. In that situation you are not going to be able to create lots of stable deterrence relationships around the world. Although Britain will be in a fairly benign situation one hopes with nuclear weapons, we will still be affected by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, whether or not we are a target of those nuclear weapons and, of course, all the time we will have these non-state actors, terrorist groups on the fringes trying to get hold on the black market of all this vast quantity of weapons grade material that is being used. The repercussions for us will be very damaging in terms of our long-term security, so it is a re-ordering of those nuclear priorities that I would like to emphasise.

  Dr Willett: I think part of the question that we have not answered yet and the White Paper does not answer, and this relates to the insurance policy, is what position the UK sees itself playing in the world. People argue that there are many other nations and they reel off dozens and dozens that do not see themselves as requiring a deterrent and that is because they do not have, or think they have, the kind of profile that we have and try and play the kind of role that we think we try to play. If we are happy to be lower ranking, assuming that we see ourselves as a global power, if we were happy to step away from that as a Government, as a country and as people and have a lower rank in the world then, yes, we would not need 60,000 tonne aircraft carriers, we would not need the major Armed Forces that we have, we would not need nuclear powered submarines and nuclear deterrence. At the moment we have a policy decision, and if you like, a decision within the country as a whole to try and be that player. There is an insurance premium that goes with that and we have to ask the key questions here about insurance premiums, there is a value that having deterrence and securities that it offers, there is a price to that and are we prepared to pay that price and how much value does it deliver to the UK as a whole?

  Q178  Robert Key: Do you think that the British public understands that we are not the fifth or fourth biggest economic power in the world by accident, it is precisely because of the projection of power in the 19th and 20th centuries that has put us there and because we are predominantly a trading nation facing globalisation, if we wish to maintain that we need to be able to defend our interest in free trade, shipping and air power.

  Dr Willett: We have a global, if you like, economic foreign defence and security policy and a deterrent is one of the pillars that underpins that. One can argue that in the post-Second World War phase when we were having the financial problems that we had at the end of the war, the problems with the empire, our arrival as a nuclear power was one of the things that kept us having that high global profile at a time when other elements of that power were falling away. Today, arguably, when we have conventional Armed Forces that are reducing in size, quality and affordability challenges for the defence budget, perhaps a deterrent is one of the things that still continues to give us that global profile.

  Q179  Robert Key: In the BASIC submission to the Committee you say on page eight: "Delay would allow an informed and proper and public parliamentary debate to take place. Discussion over this decision has until now been stifled by an information blackout within Whitehall". What do you mean by that?

  Mr Ingram: I mean that until the White Paper was published on 4 December, any questions that were directed at the Ministry of Defence essentially were, "Wait until the White Paper, the information will be there". Clearly the information is not in the White Paper. We have got many questions here today based largely on speculation and the answers that we have been given have been based largely on speculation because the information that is required to make a truly informed decision is not there in the public. What I mean is that if we were to defer the decision, if the Ministry of Defence were to engage with some real information, information that would not prejudice the national security of this country but would give us a proper debate in this area, then I think we would be in a much better position to analyse exactly the sorts of issues such as the insurance policy and the technical ability to delay this decision much more effectively.

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