Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)



  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 million.

  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 it?

  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 £250 million.

  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 happened, Chairman?

  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 States?

  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 make.

  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 mediums—land, air—are 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.

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