Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-379)



  Q360  Mr Hamilton: Minister, the last part on that I was going to ask was the White Paper also says that you will not rule out the first use of nuclear weapons. In what circumstances would you see first use being used?

  Des Browne: Can I just say I like to be consistent where I can and we have consistently—

  Q361  Mr Hamilton: Never said.

  Des Browne:— in the possession of this deterrent straightforwardly for a longstanding period of time refused to either rule in or rule out first use of nuclear weapons and I will continue to adopt that position because that is all part of our intention to maintain an effective deterrent posture through the policy of deliberate ambiguity.

  Q362  Mr Hamilton: You will appreciate that when colleagues discuss this on the floor of the Commons this will be the part of the discussion they will follow. I want to pick out some detail in relation to page 19 on state-sponsored terrorism. The final part of that is "any state that we can hold responsible for assisting a nuclear attack on our vital interests can be expecting that this would lead to a proportionate response". I am trying to think of a proportionate response. For example, if 9/11 had happened with a nuclear deterrent, would that mean we would have wiped out Afghanistan and everybody who was in it?

  Des Browne: Unequivocally I can say the answer to that particular question is no, that is not what that means at all. The first point is that the Government has a strategy for dealing with international terrorism which is clearly, and I think accepted, the most serious risk that this country faces today and one that we need to address. I want to stress again the decision that this White Paper addresses and we are discussing today is whether to invest in order to maintain our nuclear deterrent in the 2020s and beyond and not to deny future generations the safety and stability that we have enjoyed over the last 50 years by a decision not to do that. There are those, I think, who argue that we should abandon this now and concentrate on dealing with international terrorism but, as the Prime Minister says in the foreword to this paper, we are not going to be any better off by giving up nuclear weapons but we do identify among the other threats that we might face the possibility that at some time in the future a rogue state which has that capability may want to use terrorists as proxies as a way of launching weapons against us. That is what that is designed to address. It is designed to address the state of mind of the strategic threat posed by states in possession of nuclear weapons using a delivery mechanism that employs the use of terrorism and deterring that sort of behaviour. I am just making it clear that what we are not doing is we are not saying that we would deploy this as a deterrent or as an answer to what people would generally consider to be the terrorist threat but there is a very specific point made in the White Paper designed to identify a possibility in the future.

  Q363  Mr Hamilton: I realise you were a lawyer before you became an MP, but it does raise the question that there is a balance that has got to be reached and it is one of nothing or something. There is a balance that has got to be reached between our conventional forces and what we offer in the nuclear deterrent area. That is a debatable argument and one on which many people on principle would surely agree with. It is not one against the other. You raised the question about conventional forces being a deterrent. If we are stretched within Afghanistan, Iraq and so on, surely it does raise the question of where we spend our money and that is a realistic question that people should ask at this moment.

  Des Browne: That is exactly why we are obliged in government to say this will be additional expenditure over and above the settlement that we will announce in relation to the support of our conventional forces.

  Q364  Mr Hamilton: One final question. If the decision by the House of Commons, irrespective of the Three Line Whips, was not to proceed with the nuclear deterrent, would that 6% additional money go into conventional forces in your opinion?

  Des Browne: I am not planning to lose this vote in the House of Commons, so all of my focus—

  Q365  Mr Hamilton: I did say you were a lawyer.

  Des Browne: All of my focus is on succeeding to persuade a majority of the House of Commons that we should do what is in my view overwhelmingly the sensible and appropriate thing in terms of the defence of this country. I am planning that we will need to look at the Spending Review period to devote resources to the early stages of this process in terms of that assessment.

  Q366  Linda Gilroy: It is argued that deterrence is not only about threatening nuclear retaliation in response to an attack, it can also be about preventing that attack through the use of missile defence. I do not think the White Paper covers that. Why not? Does the Government have a position on missile defence?

  Des Browne: I think the answer to that is we did not address the issue of ballistic missile defence because we were considering the future of our existing nuclear deterrent in relation to this. We do play a role in ballistic missile defence and we agreed in February 2003, I think it was from a request from the United States, to upgrade RAF Fylingdale's early-warning radar for use in the US ballistic missile defence system. We are also working with the United States and NATO to understand the political and operational implications of territorial ballistic missile defence and to assess the feasibility of the technology involved. We have made no decision on whether to acquire such a capability but, never mind the paper I am reading to you, the position is that missile defence is exactly what it says on the tin, "defence against missiles". This system is designed to be a deterrent to a nuclear threat however it might be delivered to us.

  Q367  Linda Gilroy: So presumably if we did not have that deterrent we would have to consider investing more in missile defence?

  Des Browne: It is helpfully pointed out to me that in box 3.1 on page 21 there is a reference to ballistic missile defence in the context of responses to counter-arguments.

  Q368  Linda Gilroy: What page is that on?

  Des Browne: It is on page 21. To be fair, it is not part of the core of the argument, it is a response to a counter-argument, the sort of counter-argument that you were rehearsing there.

  Q369  Linda Gilroy: Presumably if we did not have the deterrent then we would have to think of investing money to a greater extent in missile defence which needs to be put into any equation of working out what we spend on defence capability.

  Des Browne: It is undoubtedly the case that if we did not have the deterrent and if we did not have the effect by that deterrent to deter the threat of an attack of the nature that this deterrent is for then we would be in a situation where we would have to either rely upon others to provide that for us or find an alternative system, but by definition a less effective system in my view, to deter such a threat and, of course, significant investment in missile defence may be part of that but, as I have already pointed out, that is one only way of delivering a nuclear threat and it would not have the comprehensive deterrent effect that we believe our current system if we invest in it can continue to have.

  Q370  Mr Jenkins: Minister, you said we may have to rely upon others to provide this ballistic missile defence. By "others", surely the only country that could provide it is the USA. Are there plans for us to be taken under the shield or umbrella of the USA for missile defence?

  Des Browne: No. I was asked by Ms Gilroy to confirm that if we did not have a nuclear deterrent then we would have to have some other form of defence and of necessity that would involve expenditure, and maybe quite significant expenditure. I was just describing where we would be if we did not have a nuclear deterrent, but as a matter of fact we do have and we are able independently to be able to deter aggressors in the way in which we have successfully been able to do over the last 50 years. Far from relying on others or moving under the wing of others, our plans and, indeed, our recommendation to Parliament in the White Paper, the whole purpose, is to say we should continue to have independent—

  Q371  Mr Jenkins: As regards the umbrella of missile defence, I take it that is a maybe?

  Des Browne: I am sorry, Mr Jenkins, could you say that again?

  Q372  Mr Jenkins: Are there any plans for us to negotiate with America to be taken under their umbrella for missile defence? You gave a long answer but you did not actually say "yes" or "no", so it is a maybe.

  Des Browne: I think everybody knows what our position is. We are working with the US and NATO to understand the political and operational implications of territorial ballistic missile defence and to assess the feasibility of the technology involved but it is early days. When we have done that we will make a decision about where we are going to go in terms of such capability, presumably with a lot of our other NATO partners who are also involved in the same process. It is a perfectly transparent and known process that NATO is doing this work.

  Q373  John Smith: Minister, do you believe the recent events in China have any bearing on our deterrent posture or, indeed, our missile defence policy?

  Des Browne: If by the recent events in China, Mr Smith, you mean the fact that the Chinese destroyed one of their satellites with a missile, as I understand it, there is a view abroad that we are dependent on satellite navigation systems either for the boats or for the navigation of the missiles, and that is not true, nor indeed to my knowledge are the Americans themselves dependent on such satellites because clearly there is a view that it would make their deterrent vulnerable to that possibility, so to that extent is not of relevance. Of course it is of relevance in that it is another factor to the strategic circumstances of the world, the circumstances we find ourselves in, and the Chinese capability of being able to do that adds to our understanding of the capabilities of other people around the world.

  Q374  Mr Hamilton: In answer to my two colleagues on my left you put great store in answering that point on the independent factor. Could you give me an example, apart from the Falklands, where Britain has taken an independent conventional force against any country in the world? Surely the issue is that we depend on each other in alliances and, therefore, alliances become very much stronger and it is not unreasonable to consider that we should have alliances with other countries that may have a nuclear deterrent.

  Des Browne: I think the answer to that is of course it is not unreasonable for us to have alliances with other countries. That is why we are a member of NATO and that is why as a strategic defence alliance we are so supportive of it. The first point about independence in relation to the nuclear deterrent is that it is entirely operationally independent and we jealously guard that operational independence. We go to great lengths to ensure that we will make the decision as to whether or not to use this, and indeed it will be made by our Prime Minister, and there are all sorts of locking devices to ensure that that is the case. We are absolutely certain and reassure everybody consistently that there cannot be interference with that operational independence. As I say, we jealously guard it; we go to great lengths for ever to ensure that it is operationally independent, and, secondly, that it generates this independent centre of decision-making that adds to the ambiguity of our posture in relation to any potential aggressors. Those are the two aspects of independence about the deterrent that are important. I think people have to understand that that is all to be seen in the context that we are in an alliance, and we are in an alliance not just with the United States of America, which is a nuclear weapon state, or France, which is a nuclear weapon state, but also with other countries whose alliance and relationship we value in terms of our commitments to each other to defend each other in the context of the agreement that we have. Of course all of that is there. Indeed, we have in my view an obligation in terms of our membership of that alliance to provide a degree of reassurance and support to others as a nuclear weapon state in that alliance, and indeed that is expressed in the strategic documents of NATO. People say to me, "Why do other countries sleep in their beds safe at night in the knowledge that they do not have a nuclear deterrent?", and substantially that is because we and France and others with whom they have an alliance do have, because we have accepted an obligation to provide them with just that assurance.

  Mr Hamilton: So there are no examples you can give of our taking that decision for our Armed Forces to go into conflict without discussing with our allies and so on?

  Q375  Chairman: Sierra Leone.

  Des Browne: Sierra Leone immediately comes to mind but I am sure there are others. I did not prepare myself for that sort of question and that is probably my mistake.

  Q376  Mr Hamilton: It is only an answer to the independence point that you continually make.

  Des Browne: I understand that, but I do not think that whether or not we have in the past and in the immediate past worked with coalition partners or have been parts of effective coalitions detracts from the importance of the independence.

  Q377  Chairman: Secretary of State, can I ask one small question? Would you accept that Trident has nothing to do with defence but that it is all to do with deterrence? It is not an umbrella or a shield; it is a sword?

  Des Browne: That is a small question but it is a very interesting one and I am reluctant to immediately jump to an answer to it until I have thought about it. My instinct is to say to you, Chairman, that it is about deterrence but I think deterrence is a sub-set of defence.

  Q378  Chairman: Does anyone want to add anything?

  Des Browne: It was a challenging enough question!

  Chairman: No? We will move on to continuous-at-sea deterrence.

  Q379  Willie Rennie: The White Paper states that "currently no state has both the intent to threaten our vital interests and the capability to do so". Given that that is the case, that there is no immediate or direct threat, why do we have continuous deterrence at sea?

  Des Browne: The fundamental answer to that is because continuous-at-sea deterrence is at the heart of having a credible deterrent. It is not just about defending against the threats of the particular day. It is about adopting an operational posture that produces an invulnerable and assured deterrent, which is particularly important to us as we have, uniquely among nuclear weapon states, a single system. This means that we can keep the deterrent minimum, we can keep it cost effective, we can keep it non-provocative, and it also means that we can avoid unnecessary escalation in a crisis should one develop. It ensures, because we keep a boat at sea all the time, that we cannot be prevented from deploying a submarine in a crisis and, as I have already said, our 300th operational deterrent patrol will be completed this year. It is an opportunity for me to pay tribute to the Royal Navy which has maintained that defensive posture for us for some significant period of time now, requiring crew to be away from their families and friends for significant periods of time. To dismantle all that: the combination of those people who are prepared to do it, our ability to be able to consistently test when we are at sea, our ability to be able to do what we need to do, would be a very serious step and I believe that if we did not continue that we could not be certain that we could recreate it, that we could step it up in the timescale that we might need to if the need arose at some time in the future. That is why we continued to do it once we had started to do it, because we are able to do it. It is very demanding and every time we deploy it we deploy it operationally. This is not practice. These people are actually doing the job and they have to maintain a very high level of readiness, a very high level of expertise, a very high level of professionalism. We ask them to do a very difficult job and we should maintain them at that level. I am told by the experts, and the Rear Admiral might want to confirm this, that if we have to maintain our people-based skills to do that then we have to maintain it at that level.

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