Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-379)|
RN, MR NICK
6 FEBRUARY 2007
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Des Browne: It was a challenging
Chairman: No? We will move on to continuous-at-sea
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.