Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)



  Q260  Mr. Hamilton: But here we are, we go to Iran as parliamentarians and sit before the members of the Majlis. We tell them that they have no right to have nuclear weapons and that they must not develop those weapons—which of course are un-Islamic anyway. They will turn round to us and say, "You are just renewing the vehicles for your own independent nuclear deterrent. Who are you to tell us that we should not have these weapons? If you have them because it is important for your own defence and security, why is it not equally important for ours?"

  Bill Rammell: I will turn that argument on its head. There is an argument that comes across implicitly on the liberal left—I am not saying that that is your view—which almost says that because some states have got these weapons, how do we have any moral basis not to say that everyone should have them? At one level we could argue that, but it is an extraordinarily dangerous proposition to advance. If we were making the case against proliferation in the context of increasing our level of nuclear capability, that argument, even though I would still reject it, would have more plausibility. Taking our example of a state that has reduced its arsenal by three quarters and is one of the strongest advocates internationally for the treaty-based approach to get genuine further reductions in nuclear capability, I do not think that that argument is justified.

  Q261  Mr. Hamilton: What further steps can we now take? You said that we have reduced our arsenal by 75 per cent. What more can we do to reduce it further, as is our obligation under the NPT? Furthermore, if we continue to retain these weapons, as the Government and Parliament have agreed we should, what use are they against not the rogue states particularly but the terrorist groups that would wish to acquire them? How on earth could we defend ourselves with nuclear weapons against that kind of attack?

  Bill Rammell: Given the range of threats that exist at the moment it would be wrong, and certainly not prudent, for us to unilaterally give up that capability. In terms of further action—and this is where the NPT conference next year is so critical—we want a coming together of the nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states to re-inject energy into that process. The fact that Barack Obama has committed to ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty is a very positive step forward. We want to commence down the path of the fissile material cut-off treaty and we want further multilateral efforts to reduce the number of nuclear warheads. A reinvigorated strategic arms reduction treaty process to see further major reductions between the United States and Russia would be very positive in that regard as well.

  Q262  Mr. Hamilton: Finally, how do you react to the suggestion that cancelling the Trident programme, not building these incredibly expensive vehicles to transport these weapons around and dismantling our nuclear arsenal would make us safer because we would have far more resources to spend on conventional weapons, ships, submarines, vehicles, men and equipment, which would make our Army and our armed forces a lot more effective both in the UK and worldwide?

  Bill Rammell: I remember putting forward that argument as a Labour activist on the doorsteps in the 1983 general election. It was not convincing. The prevailing view now is still that given the scale of the risks that we face, yes we need to push as strongly as we can for disarmament, but to take that step now to unilaterally disarm would be wrong. I am not accusing you of this, because I know your views and we have talked about this, but in some quarters there is an underlying dishonesty in this debate. People say that we should do that, with the underlying knowledge that we would still be protected by the American nuclear umbrella. I want to see progress across the board. I do not think that we could achieve that at the moment by that unilateral gesture.

  Q263  Mr. Purchase: You were unembarrassed by the dilemma or paradox that my colleague presented to you. Let me tell you that every time we have asked this question on our travels from the United Nations in New York and Geneva to many other places, they are all quite perplexed by Britain's decision to renew, improve and modernise the platform. I agree entirely with my colleague: the likelihood of any of the rogue states or anyone else targeting Britain with a nuclear weapon is almost beyond belief. However, it is likely that at some stage terrorists—religious fundamentalists, as they should truthfully be called—will obtain a means of attacking other countries with nuclear weapons of some kind. We will not have, and no one else will have, any serious defence in terms of a response, because there is no country to attack with anything. The colossal expenditure that we are now entering into should be spent more properly—if it is to be spent on defence at all—on improvements to the conditions of our armed services. We hear all the time that they do not have the right equipment on time, in the right way, and that they often do not even have decent living conditions in our military bases here in Britain.

  The Government have a very serious problem. It is true that on the doorsteps in 1983 no one was convinced by Labour's arguments, and the Conservatives had the finest propaganda ever of Labour's defence policy—a soldier with his arms up. It is absolutely true that we could not compete with that. But I do not think that this is 1983 and, besides which, even if all the press barons are warmongers in disguise, people are getting smarter. We face a genuine dilemma in both the Ministry of Defence and foreign policy, and we appear to be in what I would call "a bugger's muddle" over this whole business of whether or not we should be developing—I will finish in just a second. Should we be developing further our capabilities when pleading with everyone else to reduce them? It is simply is not principled, and at best it could be called eclecticism, but at worst it could be described as totally unprincipled.

  Chairman: We will not get through the rest of our business if we have long speeches, rather than questions.

  Mr. Purchase: I just thought—

  Chairman: I know. You have made yourself feel better, now the Minister can respond.

  Bill Rammell: You and I have talked about this long and hard before, and I know and respect your view. I acknowledge that we are not in 1983. I could be wrong, but my gut instinct is that ultimately, in a debate, a majority of British people, despite wanting disarmament, will not conclude that the circumstances are right, even now, to unilaterally disarm. The ongoing costs, with renewal, are about 5% or 6% of the overall defence budget, which is roughly what it is costing at the moment.

  On your point about equipment, the Ministry of Defence makes strenuous efforts to ensure that our military is properly equipped. I also do not agree with you that the threat from rogue states is negligible. I think it is much more substantive—

  Mr. Purchase: It is nil. By the way, I have never been a member of CND, Bill.

  Bill Rammell: Neither have I, for the record.

  Q264  Mr. Keetch: Just for the record, Minister, you suggested that if Britain gives up its nuclear weapons, we would somehow be shielding under the American umbrella. Let us be clear: every NATO country that does not possess nuclear weapons is in the same position—effectively protected by the American nuclear umbrella. If there was a nuclear attack from Russia on Lithuania, for example, then America would be obliged to respond.

  Bill Rammell: Yes, but those countries did not take, rightly or wrongly, the historic decisions that this country took to be a nuclear weapons state. You cannot uninvent the reality. We do have that capability and there is an issue about integrity—that we can give it up in the full knowledge that we will still be protected.

  Q265  Mr. Keetch: I would perhaps disagree. I want to talk about the Obama Administration, and I would also like to come back to something that Ken Purchase said because it follows on from what we have just been discussing. Am I correct in interpreting what you said earlier—that the biggest threat of chemical or biological attack on Britain, at the moment, comes from a terrorist organisation and not from a rogue state or an actual state? Is that effectively what you said?

  Bill Rammell: Yes.

  Q266  Mr. Keetch: Secondly, did you say that if a terrorist organisation possessed a nuclear weapon, then the biggest threat we would face from a nuclear attack would come from a terrorist organisation, and not a rogue state or an actual state?

  Bill Rammell: In terms of nuclear capability, we are projecting too far forward. However, your analysis in terms of chemical or biological is accurate.

  Q267  Mr. Keetch: To follow on from the questions of my two colleagues, how would we use Trident against al-Qaeda? I am the commander of HMS Vanguard, you are the Secretary of State for Defence, or the Foreign Secretary. The Taliban plants a nuclear weapon and blows up Hereford. How would we respond?

  Bill Rammell: It is much more challenging, but it is not the only threat that we face.

  Mariot Leslie: I was perhaps just going to remind the Committee of what was said about Trident in the 2006 White Paper, because it is sometimes misquoted or misinterpreted. What the Government said then about the rationale for wanting to retain the nuclear deterrent was that terrorists have an aspiration to get their hands on nuclear materials. The only route by which they would acquire that capability would be via proliferation from a state, and what we would be holding to account would be the state that might be tempted in the direction of that sort of proliferation. The only route by which they would acquire that capability would be via proliferation from a state, and what we would be holding to account would be the state that might be tempted in the direction of that sort of proliferation. The Government have never said that they intended to direct nuclear weapons against a terrorist; they were simply setting out a wide range of ways in which they might want to retain a nuclear deterrent against the possibility of a nuclear state misusing its own nuclear weapons.

  Q268  Mr. Keetch: To be clear, al-Qaeda launches a nuclear attack on a UK city, and we believe that it has acquired that nuclear technology from say, pick a country—

  Mr. Hamilton: Russia.

  Mr. Keetch: We will then respond by launching a nuclear attack on Russia.

  Mariot Leslie: The Government have never said under what circumstances exactly they would use their nuclear deterrent—that ambiguity is part of the deterrent. We do not believe that al-Qaeda has the capability to launch a massive attack with a normal militarised nuclear weapon on this country, as we sit at the moment.

  Q269  Mr. Keetch: Let me move on to the Obama Administration—slightly happier news, we hope. Minister, you said earlier that you believed that the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty would be ratified by the Obama Administration. Are you confident of that? Do you think that it would go though the Senate?

  Bill Rammell: The prospects for disarmament under President Obama are much greater and stronger than they were under President Bush. How do I adduce that in evidence? You can look, for example, at Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearings, when she talked about the importance of rebuilding staffing and financing the relevant bureaus within the State Department. Obama has made it clear that he wants to ratify, and have negotiations on, the fissile material cut-off treaty. All that I see and hear is very positive and I have belief in President Obama, but there is a caveat: in the American system, you have to get those treaties through the Senate as well. I think that with the degree of support that the President has and the political make-up of the Senate at the moment, the grounds for that are optimistic, but it is not as simple as saying that the President decrees and it happens.

  Q270  Mr. Keetch: I am sure that our excellent embassy in Washington would help to achieve that. Do you think that China would then follow?

  Bill Rammell: I would not want to presume to state Chinese intentions, but certainly when I was in Beijing a couple of weeks ago interesting discussions were taking place and there was a desire to know what the intentions of the Obama Administration were. I would hope that in those circumstances China would follow.

  Q271  Mr. Keetch: We read in The Times today that the President will establish a non-proliferation office, which I am sure we would support, and there is a suggestion of a new treaty with Russia to cut their warhead numbers to 1,000 each. Presumably the UK Government would want to support that and do everything possible to encourage it.

  Bill Rammell: I have not seen that confirmed. I understand that it is based on a leak, and I do not comment on our leaks or anybody else's. Our very clear position is that we want a renegotiation of START and further efforts and impetus towards disarmament. If that means substantial further reductions in the arsenal of both the United States and Russia, we would welcome that.

  Q272  Mr. Keetch: Presumably the situation of the missile defence programme, particularly the siting of radars in the Czech Republic, would look to remove one of the obstacles that possibly was there under the previous Administration. The new Administration seems to be moving in the correct direction on that.

  Bill Rammell: No, I think that that is a different issue. I know that there are different views. I think that missile defence has some merits. It was interesting when Obama's nominee for the policy Under-Secretary at the Pentagon went before the armed forces hearing. She articulated the view that co-operation with Russia might be a way forward on this issue. The record of what President Obama said shows that he supports ballistic missile defence but would want to ensure that it is developed in a way that is pragmatic and effective and does not divert resources from other national security priorities until it is clear that the technology works. What does all that mean? We will clearly talk to the Americans and work with them. My gut instinct is that they probably will go ahead, but maybe with a slower time frame.

  Q273  Chairman: We will come on to John Stanley in a minute with more questions on this. Before we move away from President Obama and the strategic arms reduction proposal, if the Americans and Russians get to 1,000, does that not mean that the several hundred warheads in British, French, Chinese, Israeli, Indian, Pakistani and—question mark—North Korean and Iranian possession will become a big problem? Is there not, therefore, an argument that at least the fellow NATO countries' nuclear warheads should be taken into consideration within the US total, or at least be added in, as part of a negotiation on a wider, strategic agreement?

  Bill Rammell: I am not going to get drawn into the detail of a front- page newspaper article.

  Q274  Chairman: Whether that newspaper article is true or not, the principle of reductions by the Americans and the Russians going ahead to such low levels, without having an impact on other states, is a problem, is it not?

  Bill Rammell: We have always said that our long-term aim remains to create the conditions where we could establish a nuclear-free world. If substantial, genuine, multilateral progress is really being made, we have made it clear that we would be willing to look at our weapons within those multilateral negotiations.

  Q275  Chairman: Given that we have only one system, and that there is a certain minimum number of missiles and warheads that you have to have before it becomes completely ridiculous, there is the question—not to take Mr. Hamilton's line—that at some point, potentially in the foreseeable future, we could move down the road whereby neither Britain nor France have national nuclear weapons systems because the total global stockpiles have been reduced so much.

  Bill Rammell: I am going to restate what I have already said. We have substantively reduced our arsenals. We want further multilateral reductions. We have made it clear that, in the future, if those multilateral negotiations are genuinely taking place, we would consider involving our weapons as part of them. I am not in a position to commit.

  Q276  Chairman: I know that you are not in a position to do that, but I am interested to know what point we are moving to. Potentially, in the next few years, this is a dilemma—a choice—that the British Government will have to confront.

  Bill Rammell: Our long-term aim remains to create the conditions for a nuclear-free world, and there are all sorts of difficult decisions that we will have to face up to in getting there.

  Q277  Sir Menzies Campbell: It comes to this: if your avowed policy, as set out in the document, is successful, then a point will arise at which our weapons will have to be on the table.

  Bill Rammell: I have made it clear that, in future multilateral negotiations, if the circumstances were right, we would include those weapons as part of those multilateral negotiations.

  Q278  Sir Menzies Campbell: The more successful we are, and the quicker we are successful, with this policy, the sooner the British deterrent would have to be a part of the discussion.

  Bill Rammell: With respect, I will restate what I have said. We have made it abundantly clear that we want a world free of nuclear weapons. We have a very good track record—probably acknowledged to be the best, internationally—in terms of reducing our nuclear arsenals. If there is genuine, multilateral progress, we would consider putting our weapons on the table as part of that.

  Q279  Sir Menzies Campbell: I have some sympathy with you on the point that we have been pretty good at getting rid of systems. I just wrote down, "nuclear artillery", "depth charges", "no short-range weapons", "freefall bombs"—the WE177. These are all unilateral actions taken by successive British Governments. In that regard, I think that you are quite right to claim that our record in this matter is a pretty good one.

  May I just ask you this last question? You have Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn on the other side of the Atlantic; you have Hurd, Rifkind, Robertson and Owen on this side—no shrinking violets any of them. This debate is moving on very, very fast, and that critical moment of decision, as you have agreed with my colleague, Mr. Keetch, may come rather more quickly than many of us anticipate. In that case, policy formulation is a matter of urgency, not of leisure.

  Bill Rammell: Absolutely. And the fact that all those eminent people that you mentioned are putting forward the views that they are, indicates a view that we share—and that I strongly share—that this is a critical and fundamental challenge. One of the original questions, from Mr. Horam, I believe, was whether this has gone off the boil in terms of international opinion and NGOs. Nothing could be further from the reality. We must re-inject urgency into this matter, which is why the NPT review conference next year is so critical. That is one of the reasons why we published the document today. It underlines the huge importance of the issue and is an attempt to engage people in that debate.

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