I think those considerations will probably take place after the next election.
The current international environment raises significant challenges for global disarmament. The greatest barriers remain insecurity and uncertainty, both of which, sadly, there is no shortage of in many parts of the world today. The risk of proliferation, in particular-in North Korea and Iran, of course, but there are also the implications of the technological and information advances that make the spread of knowledge and materials easier-has been a growing concern.
We have heard during this debate some grounds for pessimism but also, I hope, some grounds for optimism. We have moved from living in a world of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, standing to fire at a moment's notice during the Cold War, to a world in which the major nuclear weapons states have significantly reduced their arsenals, have stopped targeting them at anyone and have reduced their operational readiness. More recently, in 2010 we saw the signing of the new START agreement between the United States and Russia, holders of the largest nuclear stockpiles by far. Under that treaty, both countries agreed to reduce the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half and to limit the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a figure nearly two-thirds lower than that agreed in 1991.
In the same year we saw the agreement of the first ever Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty action plan, in which all 189 signatories reaffirmed their commitment to the treaty and committed to making tangible progress towards our shared goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Under that plan, nuclear weapons states all committed to making concrete progress on the steps leading to nuclear disarmament, including reducing the overall global stockpile and reducing further the role and significance of nuclear weapons in our military doctrines. Next year we will set out publicly how we have made progress on this action plan.
The UK continues to lead from the front. We take this issue extremely seriously. First, having led by example through our own actions, we are working to help build the trust and mutual confidence between states needed to achieve multilateral disarmament. We play a leading role across efforts to put in place the practical building blocks that will support that disarmament. Secondly, we are working with the international community to make it as hard as possible for others to develop, produce or acquire nuclear weapons. The UK's own record on nuclear disarmament is strong.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, is right to say that fewer nuclear weapons must surely be better for all. We have greatly reduced the number of our nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. For almost 20 years now, our nuclear weapons have been de-targeted and placed on several days' notice to fire. We have built on that strong record, announcing in our 2010 strategic defence and security review that we are reducing our requirements for operationally available warheads from fewer than 160 to no more than 120, reducing our overall stockpile to no more than 180 and reducing the number of warheads on board our submarines from 48 to 40 and the number of operational missiles to no more than eight. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that our policy is to have the minimum credible deterrent and that the UK would consider using nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO allies.
We have shown considerable leadership in reducing our nuclear weapon holdings and in increasing the transparency around them. We have demonstrated what is possible. This is a key part of our contribution towards building the right environment for multilateral disarmament. But of course unilateral actions will not produce the results that the world expects and demands. It is only through moving forward together, through balanced and reciprocal disarmament, that we will achieve a world without nuclear weapons. We can achieve this only by building trust between states that will convince all of them that they can safely disarm.
That is why the UK instigated a dialogue among the P5 states in London in 2009, when we reaffirmed our unconditional support for the non-proliferation treaty and engaged in meaningful dialogue-as mentioned by the noble Lord opposite-aimed at building the mutual understanding needed to help us take forward our shared disarmament commitments. Since then, we have held further dialogues, in Paris in 2011 and Washington last year, and met in between to discuss disarmament issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked what future plans we have. The P5 will hold a fourth conference, hosted by Russia, in April this year. In the NPT preparatory committee, discussions as to its format are ongoing. In order to maximise the value of this ongoing dialogue, it will be important to maintain momentum at that next conference. We will need to be able to demonstrate progress across a range of issues, especially on our plans to report on the commitments we all made in the 2010 NPT action plan. It is an issue on which the international community is looking to the P5 to provide a lead, and the UK will be at the heart of the efforts to achieve this.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, also asked what Her Majesty's Government were doing to help achieve the Middle East weapons of mass destruction free zone. The Foreign Office Minister, Alistair Burt, made a statement on this issue on
"The British Government supports the objective of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East. We regret that it will not be possible to convene a successful conference to be attended by all states of the region as planned in 2012. More preparation and direct engagement between states of the region will be necessary to secure arrangements that are satisfactory to all".
"We support the convening of a conference as soon as possible. We endorse fully the work of the Conference Facilitator ... to build consensus on next steps ... We will continue to work with our fellow convenors (the US, Russia, and the UN), with the Facilitator, and with countries of the region, to meet our undertakings to convene a conference on this important issue, as soon as possible".
Building confidence between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapon states is equally important if we are to find a realistic route towards global disarmament. To that end, we have been conducting groundbreaking work with Norway on the verification of warhead dismantlement, which will be a crucial aspect of any future global disarmament regime. This initiative has been the first time that a nuclear weapons state has engaged in such an open way with a non-nuclear weapons state on such a sensitive issue.
Both we and Norway have learnt a huge amount through this initiative about how nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states can work together effectively in pursuit of our shared goal. We have shared what we have learnt so far with the P5, and with a range of non-nuclear weapons states, and we will continue to share developments as we move forward. Building on this first, we are also working with Brazil to develop a disarmament-focused dialogue. The UK is unique among the P5 in launching such initiatives with non-nuclear weapon states. It is a crucial part of our contribution towards building the right environment for multilateral disarmament.
As well as improving collective trust and understanding, we need to continue our efforts to make it as difficult as possible to develop and produce nuclear weapons, particularly by those who pose a threat to global security. On this the UK is making a strong contribution. We have signed and ratified the comprehensive test ban treaty. Indeed, we were, along with France, the first to do so. We are vocal campaigners for the entry into force of the treaty, and we will continue to take every opportunity to urge all those who have not yet signed and ratified it to do so. We continue to actively support the need to negotiate an international fissile material cut-off treaty, which would put an end to the future production of the material needed to make nuclear weapons. We are firm supporters, too, of nuclear weapons free zones, which literally shrink the geographical space within which nuclear weapons can exist.
The UK has signed and ratified the protocols to three nuclear weapons free zones, in South America and the Caribbean, in Africa and in the South Pacific. We support the objective of a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East, as I have already mentioned, and we continue to push for the convening of that conference. The UK is also active in seeking to reduce the risk of proliferation from the civil nuclear sector, and strongly supports a universal safeguards system to uphold the NPT's non-proliferation regime. The IAEA's comprehensive safeguards agreement and additional protocol should be the universal verification standard for all NPT state parties. We continue to urge all those who have not yet done so to sign and ratify it.
The risks of proliferation are all too real. The international community was reminded of this following North Korea's most recent satellite launch on
The risk of new states acquiring nuclear weapons is grave-but so, too, is the risk of sensitive knowledge and materials falling into the hands of non-state actors. The UK played a key role at last year's Seoul nuclear security summit and remains committed to shaping the direction of global nuclear security. Our G8 presidency will see us chair the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. This 25-country partnership channels around $2 billion per year to programmes to counter proliferation risks. In 2012, UK contributions helped secure 775 bombs' worth of fissile material in Kazakhstan; create new jobs for 3,000 former Soviet Union weapon scientists; and, through collaboration with the IAEA, deliver physical protection upgrades and nuclear and biological security training around the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Wood, referred to the CTBT and asked about our campaign for the entry into force of the treaty. We will continue to take every opportunity to urge all those who have not yet signed and ratified it to do so. We continue actively to support the need to negotiate an international fissile material cut-off treaty that would put an end to the future production of the material needed to make nuclear weapons.
The noble Lord, and my noble friend Lady Williams, referred to Pakistan. I assure them both that we continue to press Pakistan to end its block on the start of negotiations in the conference on disarmament, and will continue to work with partners in the conference to find a solution that will allow us to take forward our commitments under the 2010 action plan. The UK remains committed to shaping the direction of global security. We fully recognise the importance of the nuclear security summit process and are working closely with local partners in laying the groundwork for what we want: an ambitious 2014 summit.
The noble Lord, Lord Wood, also asked about CASD. The Prime Minister made it clear that CASD remains the backbone of our deterrence posture. It ensures a constant, credible and capable deterrent against threats to the UK's vital interests and to our NATO allies. As my honourable friend Philip Dunne stated in the Commons last week, by being continuously at sea the deterrent maximises our political freedom of manoeuvre in a crisis.
The noble Lord, Lord Lea, asked about the main-gate decision. I note his point, but a decision on this has not been made. I will write to him if we have any further information.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, asked about the relevance of a post-Cold War nuclear deterrent. There are still substantial nuclear arsenals, the number of nuclear-armed states has increased rather than decreased, and there is a significant risk of new nuclear-armed states emerging. Several countries that either have nuclear weapons or are trying to acquire them are in regions that suffer from serious instability or are subject to significant regional tensions, so there is still the potential for a new nuclear threat to emerge despite the end of the Cold War.
We have never claimed that our nuclear capability is an all-purpose deterrent. The UK has a wide range of policies and capabilities to deter the range of potential threats that it might face, including terrorism and cyberattacks. Not all capabilities are relevant to all threats.
The UK strongly supports the goal of a world without nuclear weapons and is active in helping to build the international environment that we hope will deliver this. We have shown considerable leadership in reducing our own nuclear weapons capabilities and in offering reassurances about the very limited and discrete circumstances in which we may contemplate their use. We have been instrumental in efforts to build the trust needed between nuclear weapons states to make progress multilaterally; we have led the way among nuclear weapons states in engaging with non-nuclear weapons states to try to take positive, concrete steps forward; and we are firmly committed to putting in place the practical building blocks that will support multilateral disarmament by making it as difficult as possible to develop and produce nuclear weapons. The CTBT, a fissile material cut-off treaty and the strengthening of non-proliferation and nuclear security regimes are all areas in which we work. Our contribution towards the goal of multilateral disarmament is and will continue to be strong. We will take every opportunity to pursue our resolute commitment to a world without nuclear weapons.