Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)|
RN, MR NICK
6 FEBRUARY 2007
Q340 Linda Gilroy: In the response
to our previous report, the cost of £600 million was given
in paragraph 17 for supporting both the SSNs and the SSBNs and
I think the question was directed at finding out what the cost
of maintaining the SSNs alone would be in the unlikely event of
a decision being taken not to proceed with a new platform?
Mr McKane: I think I am right
in saying that the Committee's own report, the fourth report,
acknowledged that in this hypothetical circumstance it would be
still necessary to bear the costs of sustaining the SSNs. In practice,
a lot of these costs are fixed costs which, by their nature, are
quite difficult to attribute in a precise way to one or other
of these programmes.
Linda Gilroy: Could we ask for a note
giving a little more detail?
Q341 Chairman: In view of what you
are saying, Mr McKane, would you be able to give any more detail
or are you suggesting it is just arbitrary?
Mr McKane: I am not suggesting
it is arbitrary. I am suggesting that there is not a science that
one can apply to this.
Chairman: Could you give us as good an
estimate on it as you can in a note to us, please.
Q342 Willie Rennie: On D5 missiles,
what is going to be the cost of participating in the US Trident
D5 missile life extension programme, a rough breakdown of that?
Des Browne: It is about £250
Q343 Willie Rennie: The White Paper
allows for £2-3 billion for infrastructure costs. What is
the infrastructure money for and does it include Aldermaston within
Mr McKane: It does not include
Aldermaston within it and it is for the purposes that I described
earlier. It is based on an assessment of the asset lives of infrastructure
at Faslane, at Coulport, at Devonport and, from that, an assessment
of how much might have to be spent over the period between now
and the out-of-service date of new submarines.
Mr Borrow: Have you had any indications
from BAE Systems, should Parliament decide to adopt the approach
to the Liberal Democrats' wishes not to make a decision one way
or the other, but wait until all the advance planning work has
been done, as to what effect that would have on the price?
Chairman: I think we have done this.
We are trying to work out what the Secretary of State's policy
is and we are trying to put as much into the open as possible.
Q344 Mr Jones: You said £250
million which is a figure which has been quoted before to us about
the access to the programme. Is that the down payment to actually
get into the programme or what are the potential costs that you
actually estimate are going to be ongoing?
Mr McKane: That is the cost, that
is the estimated cost to the UK taxpayer of participating in the
life extension programme.
Q345 Chairman: Secretary of State,
you said that the through-life costs of the submarines would be
about 4 to 6% of the defence budget. I remember the days when
it used to be 1 to 2% of the defence budget. Is that an indication
of a declining defence budget or of an increasing cost of submarines
and would it be possible for you to give us the figures as opposed
to a percentage of an assumed defence budget?
Des Browne: I am perfectly content,
Chairman, to do the best that we can in relation to that, subject
to the limitations that we have already had articulated about
our ability to be able to identify particularly fixed costs for
capability other than the SSBNs. I am content to do that, but
I do know that we went through an exercise recently to make sure
that we were identifying as accurately as we could the costs that
are associated with our nuclear weapons systems and that caused
us to revise information that previous governments may have put
into the public domain. I just want to say in relation to the
£250 million that the White Paper quite specifically deals
with this issue at paragraph 5.10. This evidence that we are giving
merely confirms what was already in the White Paper, that our
contribution to that extension programme we have estimated at
Chairman: I think we will now move on
to the size and scale of the UK's nuclear deterrent. Linda Gilroy.
Q346 Linda Gilroy: The White Paper
says that the UK is committed to retaining a minimum nuclear deterrent.
How do you decide what a "minimum deterrent" is? Is
it measured in terms of destructive effect, or an ability to hit
a set of number of targets, or something else?
Des Browne: If it is a choice
between destructive power or the ability to the hit the target
then it is both. To have a proper deterrent it needs to be not
just minimum but credible and operationally independent. Credibility
requires that you have to be able to influence a potential enemy
wherever they may be in the world, so you have to be able to hit
the target, so it is vital that you have to be able to hit the
target. The minimum deterrent is the capability that we judge
is necessary to provide an effective deterrent posture which is
based on an assessment of the decision-making processes of any
potential future aggressors and an analysis of the likely future
effectiveness of any defensive measures that they might employ,
which is based on a range of information, including some that
comes from intelligence sources.
Q347 Linda Gilroy: Context is important
to defining a minimum deterrent. When I was asking the lawyers
who were in front of us last week if anybody else was defining
the benchmark of what a minimum deterrent was it seemed there
is no international discussion about that. Do you think there
is any prospect there could be such a discussion as to what was
an agreed minimum deterrent otherwise it is what we say it is?
Des Browne: Well, I think as far
as we are concerned in government we are committed to maintaining
the minimum nuclear deterrent but that minimum has to offer a
credible threat to any potential aggressors. They have to understand
that we can defend ourselves in the circumstances in which we
are prepared to say that we would defend ourselves, and that is
in the most extreme of circumstances with a threat that matches
the nature of the threat that we face. I can only speak for our
government but it is instructive that we have, as one of a small
number of nuclear weapon states, 1% of the nuclear warhead capability
in the world, so it is very clear that other countries take a
different view if they are seeking to achieve a minimalist approach
to this. We have set out in the White Paper that we want consistently
in the international community to engage others with a view to
minimising and seeing through our international commitments collectively.
I am not in a position to speak for other people and I do not
think I can answer that question for other countries.
Q348 Linda Gilroy: On the nuclear
weapons stockpile, in the White Paper that will be cut from 200
to 160 and, given that each submarine will still carry up to 48
warheads, I think some question what the operational significance
of that is. Can you put that in context in a way that responds
to that scepticism that it does not really mean anything, I suppose?
Des Browne: It means that we will
be dismantling around 40 warheads, which is quite a significant
reduction in the number of warheads that we presently have. People
should not minimise that, nor should they minimise the fact that
we have in the time we have had stewardship and government of
this deterrent halved the number of warheads.
Q349 Chairman: So when we have received
evidence that has already happened
Des Browne: That what has already
Q350 Chairman: That it has reduced
from 200 to 160, that would be wrong, would it?
Des Browne: Yes. In this process
we carried out an exercise to review the scale of the capability
we required bearing in mind that we are looking forward to the
period 2025-50 in the planning we are making now. This is the
first time we have changed the size of our stockpile since the
decisions we announced in the Strategic Defence Review
in 1998 and it is driven by an analysis, a very hard analysis,
of the capability that we believe we require. People can assert,
and they do in this debate all the time, that there are other
reasons other than the reasons that we have put into the public
domain as to why we make the decisions, but I can assure the Committee
that this process was a difficult and challenging process and
we went through it with a view to ensuring that we did have the
minimum deterrent which has always been our policy.
Q351 Linda Gilroy: Looking at the
D5 missile, the White Paper says that: "there will be no
enhancement of the capability of the missile in terms of its payload,
range or accuracy." Do you have that assurance from the United
Des Browne: As people know, we
have a common stockpile of missiles, we have an ownership of them,
and we have an understanding of what the United States plans to
do in terms of the extension programme. There are now in the public
domain letters of assurance passed between the Prime Minister
and the President of the United States agreeing the position,
in relation to among other things, these missiles, so we have
the assurances that are expressed in the letter from the Prime
Minister on 7 December and the letter from the President of the
same date. I could read the relevant sections.
Robert Key: We have read it.
Q352 Linda Gilroy: That actually
specifically says that there will be no enhancement in taking
part in the extension?
Des Browne: The relevant paragraphs
are, in the Prime Minister's letter, the second paragraph on page
two and I would draw people's attention to the last paragraph
on page one of the President's letter which carries on over the
page. I will not read them.
Linda Gilroy: Thank you.
Q353 Mr Jenkins: Secretary of State,
you must love coming before this Committee, you get such an easy
ride! Let us look at this situation with regard to our deterrent.
Some people would assume that the only reason we have got a deterrent
now is to allow statesmen to stride around the world being members
of a rather all-powerful nuclear club. Since the end of the Cold
War even you must accept that the fundamental principles of deterrence
have changed, if not in nature then in context and at the present
time it is bound to have implications for the practice of our
defence policy, so how can you sit there pretending there has
been no change, our policy has not altered and the utilisation
of this deterrent has not been affected?
Des Browne: In the first instance,
Mr Jenkins, I do not sit here pretending there has been no change.
In fact, quite a substantial part of the White Paper is devoted
to explaining just how changed the world has been since the end
of the Cold War and how much we think it will change in years
to come and how uncertain it will be, which is another way of
describing continuing change in years to come. I made the point
recently at King's College of going into some detail about this
issue in a speech I made there addressing the issue of deterrence.
I am sure you have a copy of the speech but it might be helpful
for the purposes of the evidence here if I just summarise some
of the points that I think I made there recognising that, indeed,
there is a change. Accepting that deterrence may have had some
relevance in the Cold War, now the Cold War is over and is no
longer needed, or the threats to our security have changed and
our weapons should change to match them, or because there is no
country presently it is said that has the capacity and intent
to threaten us there is nothing for us to deter at the moment
so we should scrap all of this, my argument is that the Achilles'
heel of that argument is we cannot be sure that such a threat
will not emerge over the next 50 years. The important thing is
that is what we are making decisions about now and we may well
be, as Mr Rennie was saying, at the foothills of those decisions,
and I accept that, but it is important that we recognise what
the climb is and how high up we need to go in order to be able
to maintain this deterrent. It is the timescale that we need to
think about and we need to consider the future of our deterrent
in that timescale. We cannot just wait until we are nearer that
time and have more certainty about the nature of the threat before
we make these decisions because history tells us that countries'
intentions when they have capabilities can change very, very quickly
and all of your investigations and reports have shown in terms
of our ability to be able to build and maintain this capability
that we need to make decisions to maintain skill bases, we need
to make decisions to maintain our ability to be able to service.
We are of the view, and I think this view is shared, that we could
not do this in such a way that we could create this sort of deterrent
if we needed to unless we maintained our ability to be able to
do it. We could not do it as quickly as these changes could come
about. Could I also just say that I fundamentally do not think
that deterrence is an outmoded concept. I said this at King's
College, and I repeat it here: I think it is unfortunate that
it has become associated only with the issue of nuclear weapons.
Our conventional capabilities have a deterrent effect. Deterrence
is not that sophisticated a concept, it is the whole basis, for
example, of the concept of self-defence in this country. It is
your ability to deter a particular act because of the consequences
of your likely act of self-defence. I think the concept of deterrence
could be understood from the way in which people carry themselves
in certain environments in the street to be able to deter potential
aggression all the way up. I do not think it is that complicated.
I think we have over-sophisticated it because it has always been
associated with nuclear weapons but it lies at the heart of quite
a lot of our defence policy. I do think that there is a modern
analysis of this. There is a 21st Century analysis of this. I
have tried, with the Foreign Secretary, to articulate that in
this White Paper and to explain it since then. The last thing
that I have been doing in this debate is going round saying to
people that the status quo that instructed the decisions of the
Cold War are still there; that is not the case.
Q354 Mr Jenkins: We are discussing
the nuclear deterrent on this occasion, that is the difference.
In the White Paper it says that the nuclear deterrent could be
employed to defend the UK's "vital interests". This
is not the survival of the nation but our "vital interests".
What exactly do you mean by "vital interests" because
it is not the survival of the nation? Is it the survival of allies
or do you mean the UK's trading and economic interests? Where
do you draw the line?
Des Browne: I think you are quite
right, Mr Jenkins, to say that we are discussing the nuclear deterrent
in this context but it is important that we understand the principles
that inform deterrence because my argument is you can only deter
nuclear threats with nuclear weapons. If we think, as we do, and
believe that the uncertainty of the future world is on balance
likely to generate a potential threat to future generations in
this country from nuclear weapons then we need to equip them to
be able to meet that.
Q355 Mr Jenkins: We are never going
to prove that.
Des Browne: Absolutely, and I
accept that. Indeed, in that speech I said there is no evidence
other than our experience of the last 50 years to rely upon but
at least we have that evidence of the last 50 years to rely upon,
we have the experiment of that if we are looking at it in terms
of scientific proof. You asked me to define our "vital interests"
and I am going to decline the invitation to do that for a number
of reasons. I think at the outset I should say the White Paper
makes it clear, and I repeat here, that we would only consider
using nuclear weapons in self-defence. That includes the defence
of our NATO allies and in my view I think we are obliged to include
the defence of our NATO allies by our Treaty obligations in terms
of NATO, and even then we would only do it in extreme circumstances.
It is, and always has been, part of our deterrence posture that
we retain an ambiguity about precisely when, how and at what scale
we would contemplate using our nuclear weapons. I do not think
we should do anything that simplifies the calculations of any
potential aggressor in the future. Keeping them guessing to a
degree and keeping a degree of ambiguity in relation to this is
all part of deterrence, it is one of the component elements of
it and has informed the doctrine of deterrence ever since we have
signed up to this. A precise definition of "vital interests",
if we had wanted to put one into the public domain, we would have
put one in in terms of the White Paper.
Q356 Mr Jenkins: Now I have managed
to extract that one in relation to our allies out of you, we have
two allies who have nuclear weapons: on the European mainland
we have France and, of course, we would never do anything in the
United States of America. Since the implication is they would
do the same for us, why do we need a nuclear deterrent if America
would look after our interests in the world and France would look
after our interests with regard to the European mainland?
Des Browne: I do not believe that
we can make a decision now that would require future generations
to rely upon not our allies in terms of NATO coming to our defence
in terms of the Treaty obligations and of their relationship with
us, but rely upon every other potential aggressor making that
analysis. This description of an alliance providing for us what
we do not need to provide for ourselves depends on any aggressor
taking the view that that is exactly how France and/or the United
States would act, and I do not think that is a risk that we should
take given that we are presently a nuclear weapon state. It is
not just about our confidence in our alliances, and we have confidence
in them, but it is about our confidence in any potential aggressor
making exactly the same determination that we are prepared to
Q357 John Smith: That defence posture,
that deterrent posture, depends on the credibility of our weapons
system. The White Paper is putting forward a nuclear deterrent
solution for the next 30-50 years or whatever and the basis of
the Trident system up to now has been its invulnerability. Should
technology develop that can track submarines in the next 30-50
years, do you believe our deterrent still remains credible?
Des Browne: I would just say,
Mr Smith, and I am sorry I did not bring this with me, somebody
provided me the other day with a quotation and I think somebody
may be able to find it because it is quite instructive. It was
a very direct quotation that anticipates that within 30 years
the opaqueness of the sea will be gone and, therefore, the submarine-based
system will become vulnerable because of that, which is essentially
the point you are making. The fact of the matter is that was a
direct quotation as I recollect it, Chairman, from the person
who occupied your seat at the time that decisions were being made
about the Vanguard class submarine. The conventional wisdom was
that the opaqueness of the sea would be gone and we would have
to test whether we should make this investment in submarines against
the almost certain knowledge that submarines were going to be
detected: "It is almost certain, is it not, that within the
next 30 years, which is the lifetime of this weapon, all submarines,
wherever they may be on the sea bottom, will be detectable and
detected and, therefore, very vulnerable". That was from
the then Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, Sir John Langford-Hope,
who was an ex-practitioner on anti-submarine warfare in October
1980. People are still saying that and in debate people assert
this to me as a scientific certainty. I had somebody the other
day tell me that it was a reality. What I do know is that in the
time we have been operating this system continuously at sea, and
this year we will see the 300th patrol of our deterrent, none
of our submarines have been detected. I cannot say with certainty
for the future that situation will continue but I do say that
this particular problem has been identified for some time now
and has not become a reality. The physicists whom I have taken
advice from suggest to me that it is not expected that it will
be tracked, although somebody may. You say if it does, does it
still maintain its credibility as a deterrent, and my answer to
that is it then becomes comparative because the other mediumsland,
airare definitely not opaque and the question is whether
a sea-based deterrent underneath the sea and not on the surface
of the sea is better than the guaranteed openness and visibility
of the alternatives, and my answer to that is yes. Since we do
not have any other medium to put them in then it seems to me that
it is still the best.
Q358 Mr Hamilton: The 1998 Strategic
Defence Review, which was referred to earlier on, talked about
a sub-strategic role for Trident, but the White Paper makes no
reference to this on this occasion. Have you abandoned the idea
of a sub-strategic role for Trident? How do you define "strategic"
as opposed to "sub-strategic"?
Des Browne: Can I just say that
our nuclear weapons are not intended, nor are they designed, for
military use during conflict. We have deliberately chosen to stop
using the term "sub-strategic Trident". It was applied
previously to a limited use of our weapons but we would only consider
using nuclear weapons in self-defence and then only in the most
extreme of circumstances. We have no plans to develop so-called
battlefield nuclear weapons.
Q359 Mr Hamilton: Okay. The White
Paper also states that the UK should retain nuclear weapons in
order to provide "an independent centre of nuclear decision-making"
and that this "enhances the overall deterrent effect of allied
nuclear forces". Why does it do that?
Des Browne: Well, that was the
explanation I was trying to give earlier about keeping the uncertainty
in the mind of the potential aggressor, that is what that means
about an independent centre of decision-making. It means it is
the centre of decision-making in the mind of the aggressor which
is independent of our allies.