Nuclear Disarmament — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:02 pm on 24th January 2013.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 2:02 pm, 24th January 2013

My Lords, at the start of this debate I would like to beg your indulgence if I break with tradition. Today is a sad day for the House because, during this debate, my noble and gallant friend Field Marshal Lord Bramall, with whom I had the privilege of serving in the Royal Green Jackets, having both originally joined the Rifle Brigade, although at different times, will make his final speech on its Floor. Few people have contributed more, in so many ways, to the life of the nation than my noble and gallant friend as Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Lieutenant of London, President of the MCC and, for the past 26 years, an active Member of this House. He made his maiden speech on this subject and I look forward to hearing again the views that we share, and which he has long and consistently expressed with his customary vigour and clarity.

I hope I may also share a personal memory that I suspect he may have long forgotten. Almost 53 years ago, I first played cricket under his captaincy on our regimental ground at Winchester. Towards the end of the match, I hit the biggest six of my life, and, if I shut my eyes, I can still see the ball soaring over the trees at the edge of the ground. However, as I walked towards the pavilion, not out, I was taken aback not to be welcomed by my captain but rocketed for playing such an irresponsible shot when we were fighting for the draw that we had achieved. With such commitment to the cause, it is no wonder that he became Chief of the Defence Staff. I am sure that the whole House will join me in thanking him for his many contributions and wishing him and Averil every good fortune in the future.

In 1998, General Lee Butler, one time commander of the United States Strategic Command, said:

"I see with painful clarity that from the very beginnings of the nuclear era, the objective scrutiny and searching debate essential to adequate comprehension and responsible oversight of its vast enterprises were foreshortened or foregone".

The reason why my noble friend Lord Hannay and I tabled this debate was precisely because,

"objective scrutiny and searching debate", on both the prospects for multilateral nuclear disarmament and the contribution that Britain could make have, for too long, been conspicuous by their absence from the agendas of successive Governments and both Houses of Parliament. This unwillingness to encourage both was exemplified by the Answer to the Written Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, on whether the Government,

"will publish their Trident review; and, if so, when"?

The Written Answer states:

"The Trident Alternatives Review will report to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the first half of 2013. There are no plans to publish either the report itself or the information it draws upon due to its highly classified nature. It remains too early to speculate about what it might be possible to say publicly about the conclusions when the review has been completed".-[Hansard, 19/12/12; col. WA 301.]

Yesterday, the chairman of the Cabinet Office Trident review committee, Douglas Alexander, in an interview in the Guardian, lifted the veil somewhat by confirming that the main factors being considered, far from being highly classified, were very much ones that deserved scrutiny and debate. Furthermore, if noble Lords read the debate on the nuclear deterrent held in the other place on 17 January, they will find not only open discussion of the factors for and against the need for, or possible alternatives to, Trident, to which I will return later, but mention, by a former soldier, Crispin Blunt MP, that:

"We owe it to ourselves to think rather more deeply about this matter than we have done in the past ... to review the policy properly, and as openly as we can".

He refers to the lack of an undertaking to publish meaning that,

"there will therefore be no opportunity for us to examine the costings".-[Hansard, Commons, 17/1/13; col. 1118.]

Of course, some details of every weapon system must remain classified and there is more to replacing a so-called independent nuclear deterrent than cost alone. However, what concerns me and many others is the reluctance of successive Governments to examine the criteria that should guide the choice of any nuclear weapon system. Our original deterrent was procured during the Cold War and, given the capability of our then presumed opponent, Trident was a credible replacement for Polaris in the late 1970s, if we were to convince the Russian Politburo that a pre-emptive attack on the United Kingdom would risk a nuclear response involving unacceptable damage to the territory and people of the Soviet Union. However, we are not at war now, except in the eyes of those who accept the assertions of George W Bush and Tony Blair that we are involved in a "war on terror" and a "war on drugs", whatever those two terms mean. No one in their right mind can think that Trident is a usable or appropriate weapon against the Taliban or al-Qaeda, so why the unwillingness to allow scrutiny and debate on an issue that affects us all?

These criteria, as with any weapon procurement, must begin with the operational requirement and include two questions of national self-interest. First, who is it that we are seeking to deter from doing what? Secondly, what level of capability is required to achieve that effect? Military choices alone cannot provide the answers to these because nuclear weapons with the destructive power of Trident are instruments for influencing the behaviour of political leaderships, not for achieving results on the battlefield.

We sit at nuclear disarmament tables not least because of our possession of nuclear weapons. However, as with France and China during the Cold War and other states that have acquired them later, we do so conscious that we are a bit player compared with the two nuclear giants, the United States and Russia. Like many others, I am absolutely at one with President Obama's commitment in his famous Prague speech of April 2009,

"to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons", in other words, global zero. Like him, I do not pretend that that can happen overnight and accept that the road to that end is paved not only with good intentions but with the opposite as some states without nuclear weapons contemplate changing their status. Like him, too, I recognise that although global zero requires those with nuclear weapons to give them up, achievement requires nations without them to play their part by encouraging those contemplating acquiring them not to do so.

One reason why my noble friend Lord Hannay and I sought this debate now and not earlier was that we hoped that we would have some indication of the nuclear disarmament intentions of the recently elected president of the United States. Sadly, we will have to wait for him for his State of the Union address on 12 February to hear more than a speech about fiscal cliffs and gun law. However, because the prospects for multinational nuclear disarmament are so inextricably linked with the position of the United States, I propose to comment briefly on the current framework within which any chances of their being realised are debated, conscious that others, including my noble friend, who are more expert than I will expand on individual aspects in more detail. Here I thank and commend Ian Cruse for his excellent Library note, which I am confident noble Lords will find useful, not just in this debate but in what I hope will be subsequent debates.

Leaving out the efforts to achieve a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East, which is a separate although related subject, I echo the hopes that others have expressed that the president will move quickly to make progress on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty without waiting for Russia to respond; that he will re-energise focus on the United States disarmaments commitment contained in the 2010 non-proliferation treaty action plan, conscious that the 2015 review conference is getting ever nearer; that he will take an active lead of the P5 plus one negotiations over Iran's intentions, conscious that opportunities for compromise are draining away and Israel's position remains crucial; that he will use a commitment to nuclear disarmament to unblock the stalemate over agreeing a programme for the current United Nations Conference on Disarmament, particularly over the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; and finally, that he will encourage the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, originally negotiated by the Conference on Disarmament in the 1990s. Inevitably the prospects for achieving multilateral nuclear disarmament, to which all these have important contributions to make, will depend on every nation, whether it possesses, is thinking of possessing or does not possess nuclear weapons, agreeing to that aim after careful assessment of national self-interest.

As far as Britain's contribution is concerned, the credibility of its position depends as much on our past record as on our perceived intentions. For example, I have no doubt that our role in banning cluster munitions had a decisive influence in encouraging other nations to refuse to ratify a United States attempt to modify that treaty for entirely the wrong reasons, or that that influence could also be applied to making progress with the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.

I suggest that it is on our decision on whether to replace Trident with a similar system capable of taking out Moscow that our real credibility in the eyes of the world will rest-a credibility that is bound to include appreciation of the thoroughness of our decision-taking. Although the 1970s decision to replace Polaris with Trident was based on careful examination of the criteria, the same was not true of either the Labour Government's 2006 White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent, or the coalition Government's 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review or, as far as we can determine, the current Trident alternatives review. The 2006 review resulted in the decision to retain the minimum deterrent capability necessary to provide effective deterrence and work multilaterally for nuclear disarmament, while acknowledging uncertainty about possible future threats that included a major direct nuclear threat to the United Kingdom, threats from states with more limited nuclear capabilities, or threats from nuclear terrorism. Proof that all the criteria had not been properly assessed was provided by the declarations that no distinction would be made,

"'between the means by which a state might choose to deliver a nuclear warhead ... whether by missile or sponsored terrorists'", and that,

"a state identified as the source of the material could expect a proportionate response".-[Hansard, Commons, 17/1/13; col. 1106.]

However, there was no specification either of how that state would be identified or what was meant by "proportionate response". The Strategic Defence and Security Review, endorsing that decision, added that use of nuclear weapons would only be considered, in extreme circumstances of self defence, including the defence of our NATO allies".

What do I conclude from all this? In terms of the context in which multinational nuclear disarmament is being debated, there is no doubt that 9/11 changed the nature of warfare in a way that is likely to shape the demands on every national defence strategy for years to come. The task of a defence strategist includes determining whether military force should be used at all, and, if so, with what weapons. Nuclear weapons, with the potency of Trident, were appropriate weapons in Cold War strategy but are not appropriate in the post 9/11 world. Defence strategists also have to consider current circumstances that may affect the achievement of any national aim. In this case, I believe that insufficient attention is being paid to the ever-increasing threat of cyber warfare. Cyber weapons can not only disarm an adversary before he has even begun to fight, but render sophisticated armouries and even nuclear deterrence obsolete. Furthermore, as has been proved in Estonia and Georgia, cyber weapons threaten every aspect of a nation's existence, and therefore defence against such attack must be a major requirement of every Government. As an aside, just I regret that the cost of what is essentially a political weapon-the nuclear deterrent-is now laid on the defence budget, because of its inevitable impact on required military expenditure, I hope that the same mistake will not be made with cyber, which affects not only the governance but the economy of the country.

Therefore, if progress is to be made with the United Kingdom's published position with regard to multilateral nuclear disarmament, and if Britain is to make a credible contribution to achieving that aim, my plea to the Minister is that she will recognise the unease and suspicion created by the Government's apparent reluctance or refusal to examine all the criteria associated with continuing our possession of nuclear weapons and denial of objective scrutiny and searching debate, and undertake to enable a proper debate on the conclusions of the Trident alternatives review, in government time, when those are published. I beg to move.