Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)


26 NOVEMBER 2008

  Q100  Mr. Purchase: Is there any evidence that further nuclear disarmament by the acknowledged nuclear weapons states would strengthen the wider non-proliferation effort, and would any such effect operate on states such as Iran—a key point, obviously—which are believed to be pursuing the idea of nuclear weapons?

  Lord Robertson: You yourself said that people use the modernisation of Trident as an excuse for what they might see as joining our club. If there was a movement, especially by the United States and Russia, who are massively over-armed at the moment, it would, in my view, encourage the process that we are talking about of putting regimes in place. Sir Michael might have a more objective view.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Could I distinguish between two things? First, as to whether what we do will affect the decisions made by other nuclear weapons states, I am pretty cynical. They will consult their own interest as they see it. I do not think that the Indians, the Pakistanis or, dare I say it, even the French, will be much influenced by parades of good behaviour by the UK. That said, provided that we do not run to a point where our capability is incredible or unstable, actions of that kind by us and by the others help to reinforce the non-proliferation regime as a whole, because it is seen as the nuclear weapons states fulfilling their side of one of the key bargains that underpin the treaty. To that extent it is helpful to the regime, and it is fair to say that we, so far, have a better record of reduction and transparency than any of the other nuclear weapons states.

  Q101 Chairman: Sir Michael, you are referring specifically to article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty, are you not?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Yes. That is only one of the bargains in the treaty, but it is an important one.

  Q102 Mr. Moss: Following the White Paper in 2006 and the subsequent decision by the Government to renew the Trident nuclear capability, many commentators have said that the Government's declared disarmament and non-proliferation goals are not in fact compatible with that decision. Do you agree with those commentators?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I myself do not. We are still operating entirely within what we are entitled to do, within our commitments under the treaty. Provided that we keep what we do to the minimum—I think the plans laid out in Command 6994, the December 2006 White Paper, do that—I do not think that need in any way diminish our credibility in the reinforcement of the non-proliferation regime as a whole, but it perhaps makes it all the more necessary that we do all we can to identify and forward what can be done to strengthen the regime. There are things that need to be done in that line.

  Lord Robertson: I agree absolutely with that. We are continuing with the deterrent. On the question of a renewal or modernisation or whatever, we are going to build equivalent submarines to the ones that we currently have on patrol. There may be some technical changes to the warhead, but effectively we are continuing with what we have. If we again continue to look at what is the minimum that is required, I do not think that it breaches any of the lines that are there.

  Q103 Mr. Moss: May I come on to some of the things you were mentioning about the Russian example of items going missing and the dirty bombs? Is there a case for retaining a nuclear deterrent, even if states signed up for some verifiable decommissioning, given that there are rogue states out there that may or may not have these nuclear weapons?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: It would depend on what was the totality of the political setting. Certainly, I would not be in favour of abolition unless we were sure of everybody else, including some of those we find less congenial than others, like Iran. I would not be in favour of anything like a unilateral or even a uni-multilateral disarmament. Perhaps I might add to my previous answer that those who say that we should not renew are saying that we have an obligation to abandon, which is plainly not what the treaty says, or suggests.

  Q104 Mr. Moss: How do you view, or assess, the UK's work on nuclear disarmament? In your view, what would be the most effective measures that the UK could take to advance its multilateral disarmament agenda?

  Lord Robertson: The evidence that the Government have given you itemises clearly that this is a nation that takes that very seriously. The last Defence Secretary made that one of the key priorities and made a number of positive suggestions. In our commission's report tomorrow we will go slightly further than that and make a number of other suggestions: that we must use the instruments at our disposal—and the change of power in the United States—to further encourage rapid reductions in the strategic arsenals of both the United States and Russia; work for strengthening the non-proliferation treaty; increase the financial contribution that this country makes to the IAEA; and provide further practical help for states who are not fully able to deal with UN Security Council resolution 1540, which is a very important—and undervalued—part of the non-proliferation regime at the moment. The resolution places an obligation on states to prevent the movement of weapons of mass destruction. A lot of British expertise is being fed into that area, which we believe should be given greater attention.

  We think that we should provide a financial contribution to the IAEA nuclear threat initiative nuclear fuel bank fund that has been set up. A number of other areas where commendable work has been done can be increased and intensified if we are going to be serious about getting a good outcome from the review conference.

  Q105 Mr. Moss: Do you wish to add to that, Sir Michael?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: No; I am in accord with all that.

  Q106  Mr. Hamilton: Sir Michael, you said earlier that existing nuclear states will not be influenced by what the UK does in terms of its own disarmament or reduction of warheads. But of course we must fulfil the bargain that we agreed to under article 6, and others, of the non-proliferation treaty. However, put yourself in the shoes of countries like Iran for a minute. One of the arguments they put forward is, "We accept that under the NPT there are states which already have nuclear weapons and warheads and a capability, and they will try—or continue—to reduce those over the lifetime of the treaty. But you are saying to us that we cannot have these weapons—okay, we signed up to this in the NPT—yet you are continuing to renew them." It is the renewal that I would like your opinions on.

  I know that we have explored this already, but it seems to me that if we were able to turn around to countries such as Iran and say, "We really are reducing our capabilities and warheads. We are not going to renew all the submarines and we are going to make sure that we gradually phase our weapons out," would we not be on the moral high ground? Would that not influence countries like Iran, who wish to develop these weapons, and other countries, of course who want to develop them if Iran produces its nuclear warheads? I am thinking of Saudi Arabia and maybe Egypt and others in the Middle East. Would Great Britain, by considerably reducing its stockpile of nuclear warheads and its ability to have an independent nuclear deterrent, not have a moral effect on those other countries?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I have to say that I doubt it. I would love to believe that it was so, but I just do not think it is a part of the Iranian calculation. I do not think that they would be in the least impressed by our getting out of the business, or by our halving our capability. I am all in favour, for reasons which I implied earlier, of our squeezing down as tightly as we can, and it may be that we can go further. I would hope, for example, that we will finish up with three submarines, not four, although I know that there are complicated operational questions there. Perhaps 12 missile tubes, rather than 16—things of that kind. That would help us in the wider context, as I described, but I find it very hard to believe that it would influence whatever calculations are being made in that rather opaque regime. It seems pretty improbable.

  Lord Robertson: They say that they are not looking for nuclear weapons anyway.

  Q107 Mr. Hamilton: Twelve months ago when we were there, they told us clearly that it is an un-Islamic thing to do, and that it is in their own self-interest not to have them, as they could be destroyed pretty much completely.

  Lord Robertson: But if somebody says that, they will not be influenced by you saying, "Well, here's a good thing." They probably do not believe you, either.

  Q108 Mr. Hamilton: Possibly not, but unlike them, we would be open to verification from outside bodies.

  Lord Robertson: I know. However, when I moved with your Chairman from one side of an argument to another, I asked at the time how we could ever persuade the Russians that we would do something such as giving up nuclear weapons, which to them seems so completely counter-productive. How would we ever persuade them that the weapons were not actually buried under Ben Nevis or Snowdon?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Or even in England.

  Lord Robertson: Or anywhere high or low enough for them to go. If Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, it is doing so for its own purposes. It needs to know that a price is going to be paid, and that is why the present diplomacy in relation to Iran is so important. Everybody except some people inside Iran agrees that Iran should not have nuclear weapons. We must push that diplomatic area. I strongly believe that we need more diplomacy in the world, and that follows on from the analysis that we put forward. We need more back channels and informal contacts. Iran is not a monolithic country run by a Saddam Hussein-type dictator. It is multi-layered, multi-faceted and has elections.

  We must engage with the Iranians, and one of the great tragedies of the last few years of the Bush Administration was our unwillingness even to talk to them. As NATO Secretary-General I did the groundwork for putting our troops into Afghanistan. We spoke to the Chinese, who said, "Yes, we are all in favour." I spoke to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, I spoke to President Putin and President Musharraf of Pakistan. However, I was not allowed to lift the phone to talk to anybody in Tehran, despite signals which indicated that they wanted to talk. They were as worried about Afghanistan as most of its other neighbours. Instead of always talking about the mechanics of disarmament, more investment in diplomacy—both informal and informal—could be more productive than a lot of sabre rattling.

  Q109 Mr. Hamilton: And it is clear that the Iranians are still resentful about the way in which we would not communicate with them at the time—they mentioned it to us when we were there last year. I want to return to the issue of disarmament. Call me old-fashioned, but I still stick to some of the old principles of CND. What other opportunities and ways are there for us to rid the world of nuclear weapons, or can we never do it? If we can never do it, we must always have them. Is that not the logical conclusion? If we must always have them, other states will want them too, whether they have signed up to a treaty or not. What is your solution for ridding the world of these terrible weapons? They are the most destructive weapons known to man.

  Lord Robertson: You may have been out of the room when Sir Michael gave a very eloquent answer to that question. Perhaps he will give it to Mr. Hamilton again.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Essentially, we have to work with other people on a difficult and long-term political agenda, to change the desires of states regarding what they think they need for their security. We cannot do any of that significantly on our own.

  Chairman: Let us move on.

  Q110 Sandra Osborne: Sir Michael, you said that those who felt that Trident should not be renewed were tantamount to suggesting that there was an obligation to abandon nuclear weapons under the NPT, which I agree is not the case. However, I wondered about the timing of the decision to renew Trident. Did the Government have to take that decision when they did, or could they have waited until further down the line when there might have been progress on disarmament?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: That turns very much on technical questions on which I have no particular expertise nowadays. Certainly, taking a cautious view on how long our submarines will last—we have only one system, and not much of it, so one has to take such a view—the lead times were such that, in the Government's opinion, we had to start moving. We have not ordered the boats; we have merely gone into substantial design work. We had to start moving then. There may also have been a consideration—a legitimate one, I think—that if we did not get some work going, the technical and industrial capability would have atrophied. You cannot switch these things on and off suddenly. So, although I am not in any way master of the detail, I find that a plausible story.

  Lord Robertson: That is absolutely right. Certainly when I was at the MOD, the thinking about it was starting. When you have only one system and you have kept it to the very minimum, you have got to make sure that it is absolutely right—totally safe, utterly reliable—because what you are talking about is something pretty big and pretty grave as it stands. Therefore, saying that you can extend the service life of a submarine implies different risks in the system that you might not want to have. There are other countries in the world which clearly have been taking short cuts. We have seen examples of what that leads to.

  What is right and proper when you are continuing a system? That is the issue here. We are not building a completely new system. This will be using the D5 missile. It may have to have an updated warhead, but it is basically the same design of submarine. Remember that that was one of the few Ministry of Defence procurement projects to come in on time and under budget. You cannot say that about pretty well anything else that has been produced by the Ministry of Defence, before or since my time in office. The reliability and the safety are absolutely paramount concerns, so moving early with what is a continuation of the existing system was the wise thing to do.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Perhaps I could add, since I have a long memory in these matters, that we had experience of twice being scared by things going wrong technically. We once had to retire an entire V-bomber type almost overnight, when we found a major fatigue problem in it. In the late 1980s, I think, we had a serious fault develop in the Polaris submarines, which nearly caused us to lose continuous patrol. So one has to take a cautious, conservative—with a small "c"—view of these matters.

  Lord Robertson: Has the Committee been on one of the Trident submarines? It is a pretty impressive regime in place there, to guarantee that mistakes are not made. That is a good principle, which should apply not just to the training and the quality of the crew but to the equipment.

  Q111 Ms Stuart: Still on Trident, but now on the cost of it—given the pre-Budget report, and the fact that we have started talking not about billions, but about trillions of pounds going into the economy, do you anticipate that there may come a point when we will say that this may be something that a UK Government now or a few years down the road simply cannot afford?

  Lord Robertson: I do not think so. I cannot imagine a British Government taking that viewpoint, although it would be important for the Government to make sure that they minimise, so far as is practicable and safe, the price that would be paid. I held a very strong view about procurement projects, and I was not, sadly, at the Ministry of Defence long enough to embed the principles that I thought should apply there. I have done a foreword to a book that the Royal United Services Institute is publishing today about the procurement process, saying that we need to do it. I would not take the figures at face value. I think that we need to press down on them. However, we should remember that the Trident system and the existing submarines did come in on time and under budget, which is significant. I would hope that the same could take place, and that the cost will be minimised for the taxpayer.

  Q112 Mr. Purchase: May I push on a little further with the point that my colleague makes? When Robin Cook was Foreign Secretary, he visited the rusting, rotting Russian nuclear fleet. Considering the picture that you have just painted, Lord Robertson, of the immense technical problems that emerge in maintaining a fleet of this nature, allied to Gisela's point about the future, with billions, if not trillions, of liabilities that we might have in all kinds of directions, would it not be better to do without these things, given that no one can imagine the circumstances in which we would use them?

  Lord Robertson: You have to imagine the circumstances in order to make sure that they never happen. That is the calculation made by the nuclear states. It has produced a remarkable period of stability in the world since 1945. These weapons have not been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  We are coming to a point now where, first, there are far too many nuclear weapons, secondly, the technology and the materials appear to be spreading, and thirdly, we have a new breed of terrorists and non-state actors who might well use them. That is the point. You cannot undervalue or underestimate what nuclear deterrence did after the second world war by stopping people thinking that they could win a conventional war. We need to move to a different mindset. Of course, it is costly. All forms of defence and security will have a cost. Everyone will have to make a measurement about it. Making us less safe is not a good bargain with public money. Sir Michael also has a view on stability terms.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: If somebody came to me in five years' time and said, "I am very sorry. We got the figures wrong. It is not 15 to 20 billion, it is 100 to 150 billion", I would suck my teeth and think again. That is a far-out speculation. Meanwhile, though we cannot describe credible detailed scenarios, this is our long-term insurance against the world going seriously wrong in ways that we cannot at present pin down. I do not think the world is yet a sufficiently stable and predictable place that we should now abandon this last resort insurance. That is the nature of the calculation and the judgment that has to be made.

  Q113  Mr. Purchase: MAD rules? Mutually assured destruction?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: No, it does not have to be that. That is a slightly different question about what we should be capable of doing. I do not believe it should be vaporising the other man's cities. That is another and wider question.

  Chairman: The acronyms from about 20 years ago include MAD and NUTS, which was "nuclear utilisation targeting strategies". We can get into some interesting ones.

  Lord Robertson: No way here are we thinking about mutual annihilation.

  Chairman: Let us move on to something related, but different.

  Q114  Sir John Stanley: Lord Robertson, at the beginning you rightly drew attention to the huge scale of the Russian and American nuclear arsenals and how imperative it was to try to get them reduced. Because of the possibility—probability, perhaps—of ballistic missile defence deployment in Europe by the United States, the Russians have so far repudiated the conventional forces in Europe treaty and threatened to withdraw from the intermediate nuclear forces treaty. We have no conceivable prospect in the present climate of making any further progress on START, which is so imperative.

  Against that background, I would like to ask you both this question. Given the minimal degree of extra security, in my judgment, provided by the 10 interceptors proposed to be deployed in eastern Europe, is it worth while in our own security terms to continue to support American ballistic missile defence deployment in eastern Europe, when the nuclear downside in terms of reducing nuclear arsenals—putting a stop on that—is patently clear as long as BMD stays an American policy?

  Lord Robertson: That assumes that the Russians would stick with all the other agreements if the interceptors and radars were taken out of the equation, which is by no means certain. It is important to grasp the fact that the Russians are not opposed to ballistic missile defence. After all, they are closer to what President Putin once described to me as the "rogue states" than to mainland USA. Their excitement, worry and concern at the moment is about the location of the interceptors and the radars, which they see as being configured more against Russia than against the rogue states to the south.

  Indeed, President Yeltsin's repudiation of President Clinton's offer about missile defence was succeeded, under President Putin, by an offer, which was made to me as NATO Secretary-General, of non-strategic European missile defence. It was a very thin document given to me by Marshal Sergeyev, the then Minister of Defence for the Russian Federation, which was essentially about a grand extra-theatre missile defence system based somewhere towards the south of Russia that would give protection against ballistic missiles.

  There is common ground that there is a military threat, that there is a military solution and that the kind of deterrence that we have grown used to in the post-second world war period is not sufficient to deal with some of the new actors, which are unlikely to respond to conventional deterrence theory. I think we have to see what happens under the new American Administration and whether they take up President Putin's offer, which he made last year, of utilising a sovereign Russian base in Azerbaijan for an additional radar point, or even interceptor point, which, in many ways, would remove Russia's concern that the deployment was not actually about ballistic missile defence, but about relations with Russia. There is common ground that has to be explored. We should not necessarily assume that simply removing what has been proposed for ballistic missile defence resolves anything in itself.

  Q115  Sir John Stanley: Sir Michael, on my original question, do you think that in nuclear disarmament terms it is worth the Americans' while, and worth our supporting it, to pursue the existing proposal for the deployment of the interceptors in the Czech Republic?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I think that it is a bad idea. I am more deeply sceptical than Lord Robertson about the value of these things. I see an awful lot of "military-industrial complex" around in the BMD territory. I note that the Russians have, of course, their own BMD, some of which, we believe, is still nuclear-tipped, if you like. It may be that the fuss that they are making about this small deployment is overblown, if not manufactured. That said, I do not believe that the deployment has any value commensurate with the trouble that it is currently causing. I very much hope that, perhaps in a wider negotiation for a post-START or post-SORT treaty, the Obama Administration will be ready either to trade it away entirely, which would not grieve me greatly, or to make considerable concessions about its form and operation.

  Lord Robertson: I would go along with a lot of that. I am not yet convinced that they have got it technically correct and, again, diplomacy is being overwhelmed by something that may not have been thought through. Going back to the previous questions about what is affordable in defence terms, President-elect Obama is going to have some very tough choices to make. It may well be that this issue will be one of those seen as being less important. Ultimately, it brings us back to the central point: if the conventional view of deterrence that we have had up to now cannot be seen to be effective against rogue states and non-state actors, what do we put in its place? Ballistic missile defence was one possibility. The other is building a world that is much more united, coherent and committed than the one we have now.

  Q116  Chairman: Sir Michael, to take up your point, is there not far more politics in this than military utility? The symbolism for the Russians in the United States putting systems in former Warsaw Pact countries is more about a sense of the Russians' weakness. Therefore, they have become extremely agitated, because they want to show that they still matter in the world and that the Americans cannot position weapons in Poland.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I think that that is very likely the case. The Russians, I am sure, view with gut resentment the advance of NATO systems, even "defensive" systems, into what was once their own protective glacier. That is probably driving the steam. But, as I implied, I hope that we can turn that round in a bargain on a new treaty, which will not be easy with the Russians, because I would hope that a new treaty between the US and Russia would get into Russian non-strategic systems, about which they are very secretive and of which they probably have by now several times as many as the Americans. So there will be quite difficult bargaining to do, and we shall need chips to play.

  Q117 Mr. Horam: Would you therefore support President Sarkozy's call, along with President Medvedev, for a European security pact or summit to discuss those things, under the auspices of the OSCE?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Lord Robertson will have a more solid view than I do. I am a little uneasy about things of that kind, which look like the Gorbachev attempts to talk about a common European home and let the Americans—

  Q118 Mr. Horam: Why are you suspicious of those things?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Because it might be an attempt of the kind that France has been known to attempt before, in a different era, to arrange matters without the Americans or with the Americans in a less prominent role.

  Q119 Mr. Horam: Will this not depend on American participation? Would it be best to have a US-Europe-Russian security summit? I think that that is part of the idea.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: If so, that is fine. I am still interested to know what deal is being sought.

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