Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)



  Q1 Chairman: Good afternoon, everybody. I welcome our two witnesses, Mr. Fitzpatrick and Professor Chalmers. This is the first public evidence session of our new inquiry on global security and non-proliferation. Today we will focus on nuclear weapons issues, but later in the inquiry we will consider other issues, including chemical and biological weapons. We will also consider some conventional arms issues, including the arms trade treaty, but the focus today will be on the nuclear issue.

  To begin by going back to the history, those of us who were around in the 1960s, '70s and '80s are well aware of all the various books about nuclear deterrence and the argument that in certain circumstances war was prevented by the existence of nuclear weapons. Are the Government right in those circumstances to have a policy of opposing all nuclear weapons proliferation, or could there be circumstances in which potential adversaries possessing weapons of mass destruction deter each other from the use of such weapons?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I would be happy to answer, Mr. Chairman. Thank you very much for inviting me to attend and offer some thoughts. First of all, I think that the Government are correct. They are obliged by their commitment in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to work towards the goal of nuclear disarmament, and they have reaffirmed that several times.

  I think that there is a recognition that nuclear weapons present one of the greatest dangers to mankind, and even though nuclear weapons have played an important role in the past 60 days in helping to prevent a conflict between the major powers, the existence of the weapons themselves means that the potential for misuse, miscalculation and mistakes remains high. There are instances, as you with your reference to history will know well. In the Cuban missile crisis and the India-Pakistan standoffs of 1998 and 2002, the world came perilously close to seeing nuclear exchanges. As a goal, disarmament remains vital.

  Q2 Chairman: Thank you. I think that you meant 60 years, not 60 days.

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: Sixty years, yes.

  Q3 Chairman: I was wondering which crisis we had had in the past 60 days. No doubt we could say that there is always the potential for conflicts of that kind. Professor Chalmers, do you wish to add anything?

  Professor Chalmers: I concur with everything that Mr. Fitzpatrick said. I think that it is the case that nuclear weapons contributed to more caution on the part of those possessing them when they were confronted with other powers with nuclear weapons during the cold war. Therefore, I think that they did reduce the chances of conventional conflict between the major powers. What they did not do was to end that possibility altogether. As Mark said, there was a real possibility that nuclear weapons could have been used during the cold war. We were lucky that they were not. In the current period, it continues to remain possible that they might be used. Indeed, I think that the reason why we are having this discussion is that there is concern that nuclear weapons might one day be used, by accident or deliberately, which would create a transformation in international politics, very much for ill.

  Q4 Chairman: Is the real problem the proliferation of nuclear weapons to new countries or the existence of nuclear weapons themselves?

  Professor Chalmers: I think that the problem is the possibility that nuclear weapons might be used. That relates both to countries that already possess nuclear weapons and to countries that might possess them in future. It does not apply to all those countries equally at any one point in time, but if we are talking about the next 20 or 30 years, I would be just as worried about the nuclear weapons of Russia or Pakistan as I would be about the possibility that Iran or North Korea might have them in 20 or 30 years' time. Of course, I am less worried about the arsenals of countries like the United Kingdom or the United States, but even in those cases there are real issues surrounding their accidental use and the security of those weapons, and the associated fissile materials, against terrorism which we need to address and which are not being addressed sufficiently right now.

  Q5 Chairman: We are going to come on to some of these detailed areas in a moment. Mr. Fitzpatrick, do you wish to add anything?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I largely agree with Professor Chalmers on that. There is a particular danger in the proliferation when countries newly acquire nuclear weapons. The potential for misuse, mistakes and miscalculation is higher than in states like the United States and the United Kingdom which have evolved careful control strategies, communications with potential adversaries and the like.

  Q6 Chairman: In the debates around the issues there is often a tendency—the Government themselves do it in their documents—to group together nuclear, chemical and biological weapons under the heading of weapons of mass destruction. Without going into events of five years ago, there is sometimes therefore a confusion about what is meant by WMD. We have had at least one submission from an academic saying that it is very unhelpful to group them together in this way and that people should not talk about WMD because it does not give clarity. Do you agree?

  Professor Chalmers: I would concur with that. I do not think that weapons of mass destruction is a very helpful term. People sometimes use the even worse acronym, NBC—which is also a TV channel in the United States—for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, distinguishing them as distinct categories of weapons. Mass destruction in terms of physical destruction is a characteristic of nuclear weapons, not of chemical and biological weapons. Chemical and biological weapons may in some circumstances be very useful terror weapons, but in terms of their military utility against those who have organised their own defence, they are much more problematic. Nuclear weapons are in a category of their own and should remain so.

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I agree with that. WMD is usually used as shorthand. It does not create clarity. But it is a term that has some standing in international law. It has been used by the United Nations. We cannot simply discard it, but it is useful when analysing the problems to try to distinguish between the threats.

  Q7 Mr. Horam: Looking at the overall global situation today, what view do you take of the trends there are in the possession of nuclear weapons by individual states. Do you think the trends are helpful, very bad or how would you assess the situation as we see it from today's perspective?

  Professor Chalmers: The nuclear non-proliferation treaty has played an important role in slowing the pace—

  Q8 Mr. Horam: It has done so?

  Professor Chalmers: It has done so up to now. I was reading recently a US national intelligence estimate from 1957 which predicted that by 1961 Sweden would be acquiring nuclear weapons and that several other states would do so in the following decade. That simply did not happen. A large number of countries—Sweden, Spain, Yugoslavia, Australia and others—which did have nuclear weapons programmes in various stages, abandoned those programmes in large part because of the norm created by the NPT. Even today, the number of states that are actively pursuing nuclear weapons options beyond the nine states which we know have them is very limited. Iran is the main example in that category. That is not to say that other countries are not hedging around such options, but the idea that we have a cascade of proliferation under way right now is not the case.

  What we should worry about, and this is why there is so much focus on Iran and North Korea, is that if those countries acquire and consolidate a nuclear weapon capability, there is likely to be considerable domino pressure in those regions, which would then lead to other countries acquiring them. Yes, we have had some degree of success, but I would come back to the point that I made in response to a previous question. The problem of nuclear weapons is not confined simply to new states. It is also characteristic of those who already possess them.

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: A year ago, I might have said that the states seeking nuclear weapons were the same states that were seeking them 20 years ago—North Korea and Iran. The case of Syria, though, gives me further cause for concern. In the past year we have learned that Syria was pursuing nuclear capabilities, and it very much looked like the intention was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. There is this blip here, that there could be other states that already have been seeking to join Iran in acquiring capabilities, and that is of concern.

  The other trend that is worrisome is that Iran and North Korea both violated their NPT obligations, and the enforcement of those obligations has, in my view, not been sufficient. So, there is both the impetus on the part of some states to seek nuclear weapon capabilities, and the insufficient will and ability of the rest of the world to take measures both to penalise and to stop them.

  Q9 Andrew Mackinlay: Professor Chalmers, you said something almost as an aside. To paraphrase, you said, "I have some reservations, some concerns, about the security of the United Kingdom arsenal"—I think that you used the word "arsenal"—"the storage of fissile material, and so on." I clocked that. Can you amplify on what you said? I have seen some of our nuclear security with the marines. What do you have in mind?

  Professor Chalmers: A couple of cases that have come up recently in relation to the United States arsenal illustrate that there is no such thing as entirely foolproof security. Last year, half a dozen US nuclear-armed missiles went missing from the US Air Force for a couple of days without anybody realising. Subsequently, of course, very senior Pentagon officials were fired as a result. There was another case in May of this year in which there was a fire in a Minuteman silo. The fire was not even detected for five days by the people in charge of the site. Things like that happen in any complex organisation. I do not have any specific concerns in relation to UK nuclear weapons, but I think that we need to be very careful. Perhaps the experience of the recent financial crisis has increased our concern about thinking that systems always work perfectly. They do not.

  My final point is that there can be tension between, on the one hand, having nuclear weapons systems for use in very extreme circumstances which are designed to prevent the possibility of their not being able to be used when required, and on the other hand, the requirement to ensure that they are never used inadvertently. There is a trade-off there, and there always will be.

  Q10 Andrew Mackinlay: Do you have any concerns about our single-platform delivery system—basically submarines, which tragically do break down and go wrong—compared with either land-based or aircraft systems? I am following your trend. I have listened to your last few comments and I think that you are right to caution us. Things go wrong; people get confident and complacent. However, it occurs to me that our delivery system is under the water—deep in the ocean—and vessels do go wrong and have accidents.

  Professor Chalmers: One of the advantages in terms of safety that the UK has is that because we have a survivable system, and only one system, there is less pressure in times of crisis or uncertainty to mobilise or reduce the safety level to be able to use those systems. Therefore, there is a lot to be said for a system such as ours, compared with that of other countries. I would not suggest for a moment that ours was less safe that others; I think that it is more safe by having single-platform delivery. Nevertheless, events happen. There could be breakthroughs in anti-submarine warfare—there might already be breakthroughs that I am not aware of—which mean that we have to change our operating patterns. They are dynamic systems, so we should never think that anything is foolproof.

  Q11 Mr. Pope: You have already mentioned three countries of concern—Iran, North Korea and Syria—so perhaps we could look briefly at each in turn. Professor Chalmers, in your submission you stated that there is a real possibility that Iran will become a nuclear weapon state within a decade, and it is possible that that might be unstoppable. A while ago the Committee visited Iran and went to Esfahan, and I understand that most of the nuclear facilities are in the mountains around Esfahan. It looks like a very secure area. Is it inevitable that Iran will become a nuclear weapon state?

  Professor Chalmers: No, I do not think that it is inevitable, but I think that it is possible. A lot will depend on the calculation of the Iranian leadership, which seems, like the leadership of most states, to be concerned to a very significant extent with regime survival and security. It has concerns in that regard and will make a calculation on whether pursuing the goal of complete weaponisation, which is distinct from stopping somewhere along the road towards that end goal, will add to or diminish its security. There are very strong reasons to suggest that going down that route could pose real dangers to the Iranian regime, but that has not stopped leaders going down such paths in the past. The UK and allied countries need to continue the strategy of doing everything we can to change the cost-benefit calculation of the Iranian leadership so that they do not go down that road.

  My final point is that it is entirely possible that the Iranians will continue moving down a route of approaching such a capability, going as far as they can within the constraints of the NPT, but not actually going over that final stage, unless there is some immediate reason for doing so, and that is perhaps rather more likely than complete weaponisation. As politics with Iran play out over the next two or three years, one of the things that I worry about is avoiding a situation in which Iran pulls out of the NPT in the way North Korea did, because that could radically accelerate the nature of the crisis in a way that we would all lose out from.

  Q12 Mr. Pope: It could reach a breakthrough capacity and stop short of the stage at which it could easily weaponise if it wanted to.

  Professor Chalmers: Exactly.

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I agree with that. There is a difference between having a capability and having a weapon, but that difference is usually invisible, and in the case of Iran, which has such a low level of co-operation with international inspections and which has violated its treaty obligations in the past, if it has the capability we have to take the worst-case analysis and assume that it would have weaponisation. However, there are strategies that can be pursued to try to make that line more visible and stronger. Iran is already reaching the point at which it will soon be able to produce a quantity of enriched uranium that, if further enriched, could be enough for a nuclear weapon. It is very close to reaching the red line of mastery in enrichment. These are the questions: can it be persuaded to stop there, and can we keep its capabilities limited?

  Q13 Mr. Pope: Iran is a depressing example, so maybe I could turn to North Korea, where there has arguably been more diplomatic success. What are the prospects that diplomatic pressure will bring North Korea's nuclear ambitions to an end?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I would not call North Korea a success story, since diplomacy failed to prevent it from crossing the line of testing a nuclear device. The diplomacy is very active today in persuading North Korea to at least stop producing more fissile material and disable what it already has. The big question is whether it will be ready to go further and disable the nuclear devices that we presume it has and get rid of the plutonium. The big question is what would persuade North Korea to give up what it sees as its last remaining trump card and views as essential for the security of the regime and country. Can it be persuaded to take the course that Libya took and realise that nuclear weapons are not essential and are in fact a detriment to their security? I think that it is going to be very hard to persuade it, but a step-by-step process that establishes trust and shows that it gets rewards for taking steps to disable them is the only way forward.

  Professor Chalmers: One of the differences between North Korea, on the one hand, and Iran and Libya, on the other, is that Iran and Libya, because of oil, potentially have very prosperous economies, and international sanctions, or the prospect of sanctions, have hampered their ability to develop their economies and to become very viable members of international society. On the other hand, North Korea has no such resources; its economy is dependent on illegal or nefarious activities such as missile exports, which are not covered by the current negotiations. The regime is clearly concerned that if it gives away all of its bargaining cards in this process, even if it is promised aid, it will become a state that is essentially dependent upon international aid, not least from South Korea, which could be withdrawn.

  My judgment is that we are in a situation, as we have been for some time, where there is a close interaction between discussions about the political future of North Korea and negotiations about its nuclear weapons and missiles. I think that it is unlikely that it will give up entirely those options without some significant political change.

  Q14 Sir John Stanley: As you know, in the immediate run-up to the American presidential election yesterday, President Bush agreed to withdraw the Democratic People's Republic of Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In Seoul the weekend before last, I found that across the political spectrum within the Government, the view was that the Bush Administration's decision may have been heavily influenced by the impending presidential election. Their view was that the verification provisions that had been agreed with the DPRK by the American negotiator, Chris Hill, were far too loose and elastic, and that is very dangerous country to get into when dealing with the DPRK. What is your view of the strength of the verification provisions entered into by the US Government?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I believe that it was the right decision to take North Korea off the terrorism list. There was an agreement that if North Korea declared its nuclear facilities, it would be taken off the list. That declaration was apparently not complete, so there needed to be a verification process that could confirm whether it was complete. I think that the initial verification proposal put to North Korea was probably the kind of proposal that a nation might put in the first round of a negotiation seeking the maximum that one would want. I would certainly have wanted everything that was asked for, but verification means verifying what a country declared and North Korea only declared the facilities at Yongbyon, so it makes sense that the verification was largely limited to that, with some possibility for inspection of other undeclared sites. It is those undeclared sites that did not require access for the verification that some in Seoul took exception to. Verification will continue to be a very important issue as we try to learn more about the North Korean programme. One has to take it step by step, and if the United States had not taken that step, the process would have continued to unravel and we would be further from the goal.

  Q15 Sir John Stanley: Professor Chalmers, do you want to add to that?

  Professor Chalmers: No, I agree with it.

  Q16 Mr. Pope: I just have one more question, which relates to Syria. A facility was destroyed al-Kibar just over a year ago by the Israelis in an air strike. In its written evidence, the British Foreign Office said that the evidence provided by the CIA that the Syrian facility was a nuclear facility was compelling. I am trying to be generous to the CIA, but its track record in assessing with accuracy whether or not a country has a WMD facility is patchy. I am interested to know what your assessment is of Syria's intentions. Was the facility at al-Kibar a nuclear one?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I have looked at this question deeply and it was part of an assessment dossier we put out earlier in the year. I agree with the Foreign Office conclusion that the evidence the CIA put forward was compelling, in that the facility destroyed at al-Kibar was a nuclear reactor and that the purpose of the reactor was to produce plutonium. That much is very clear. What cannot be said with 100% clarity is that Syria intended to use this plutonium to produce nuclear weapons. There was no evidence of a facility that could reprocess the plutonium, which you need to do before you can make nuclear weapons. If I analyse it, it stands to reason: why would you produce plutonium except for a nuclear weapons purpose? It is a logical assessment. I think we can say that it is obvious that the reactor was there and it was for plutonium production, and that the assessment is probably correct.

  The CIA's track record in past instances did not have anywhere near the degree of hard evidence that it had in this case. It had photographs on the ground that matched the overhead imagery. It had somebody inside the reactor with photographs. If somebody did not believe that, they would not believe anything.

  Mr. Pope: That is very helpful. Thank you.

  Q17  Mr. Moss: May I now come on to Pakistan? Of course, Pakistan was the source of the most well-known illicit nuclear proliferation network. In your opinion, is Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme now secure from proliferation risks?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I will take the question as I have also looked at this carefully. Not to blow our own horn, but the International Institute for Strategic Studies put out a dossier on this. There are three aspects of the Pakistan programme that I think are causes for ongoing concern. One is the security of the weapons themselves. Could they fall into the wrong hands in Pakistan? The second is the proliferation risk. Could it again sell the technology or used parts to other nations, as A. Q. Khan did? The third is, will Pakistan expand its nuclear arsenal? The last is a real concern because it is expanding its production capabilities.

  Pakistan undertook a reform of the command and control of nuclear assets. It put in charge of the programme elements of the Pakistani army which are the most elite and reliable of forces available. I have a degree of confidence that it really did change its control over these weapons in ways that make me think they are not going to fall into the wrong hands overnight. That does not mean that I have no concern at all. Pakistan is a country beset by many problems. The confluence of terrorist threats in Pakistan and the existence of these nuclear weapons puts it very high on the list of countries that we need to be concerned about.

  Q18  Mr. Moss: Can I pick up on your third point about proliferation and the scale of nuclear weapons? Is that to replace older weapons and capability, or is it adding to existing capability?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: It is largely adding to existing capabilities. Pakistan's programme has largely been based on highly enriched uranium. This was the technology that A. Q. Khan sold. It has supplemented that with the plutonium-based weapons programme, which is the one that is expanding. Pakistan is in competition with India. It is perhaps too much to call it a race, because they have not been racing as fast as they can, but Pakistan is making very significant efforts to increase its capabilities.

  Q19  Mr. Moss: What are the prospects that India, Israel and Pakistan might be brought into the nuclear non-proliferation treaty?

  Professor Chalmers: I think the prospects of that are very limited. However, one of the questions is whether there are other ways in which those countries can be brought into multilateral arms control—through a comprehensive test ban treaty, or some sort of limitation on fissile material production, for example. There are more possibilities, perhaps particularly in relation to the former.

  Opportunities were missed after the cold war by not proceeding more rapidly in some of those areas, when India and Pakistan became openly nuclear. Then, when we got into the recent discussion between the US and India about a nuclear deal, not enough advances were made in those areas for India and Pakistan to have had something that they were then under pressure to join.

  There are now real prospects in relation to the comprehensive test ban treaty; we may now be in a situation where the US can ratify that treaty, which would then put significant pressure on countries such as India. It is entirely possible that Israel would ratify such a treaty. China would probably ratify it if the US did. It would very quickly come down to India and Pakistan being the only countries remaining. There may be risks that, in a situation in which India and Pakistan were the two main holdouts to CTBT entry into force, like France before its CTBT ratification, they might be tempted to test in advance of ratification. That would clearly create enormous problems. Mark may wish to add to that, but that is an area in which there could be progress.

  Similarly—perhaps not now, but at some stage in the coming years—it is possible that India and Pakistan may come to the view that they have enough fissile material that they are prepared to sign on to a fissile material cut-off treaty. I do not think that is yet the case. As Mark was explaining in relation to Pakistan—it is also true of India—there is still a build-up of fissile material and warheads in those two countries. However, I think that it is possible in the not-too-distant future.

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