Nuclear Weapons (International Relations Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:49 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade) 5:49 pm, 16th July 2019

My Lords, I have only a fraction of the experience and knowledge of the noble Lord, whose contribution to this debate I agree with. He gave very clear evidence as part of our committee’s inquiry and should be commended for the work that he is doing.

The noble Lord concluded by referring to the combination of political and rhetorical instability and uncertainty. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, indicated that that was one of the report’s key conclusions, as was the fact that new technologies that have emerged in the past five to 10 years. It was striking that the Government’s response seemed to recognise that cyber and hybrid threats create greater uncertainty, but they have not indicated that that, combined with the political and rhetorical instability, is a greater threat to world peace—and the two are combined, as the noble Lord has indicated.

The Government said in their evidence to us:

“the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent is a political, not a warfighting, tool”.

Reading that bold statement, I was struck by the question of when that became the case. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, our excellent specialist adviser and Joseph Dobbs, our committee’s policy analyst, did excellent work in providing us with background material. In his interesting analysis, John Baylis showed that British nuclear strategy in the early Cold War period was based upon the concept of “counter-force deterrence”, meaning an ability to strike forces that were targeting directly the United Kingdom, given our own particular vulnerabilities. During the thermonuclear period, “deterrence in concert” with the United States involved targeting a mix of military and urban centres. “Unilateral deterrence” then targeted Soviet cities. With the Polaris force, deployed in the late 1960s, it was believed that we had the ability to target Moscow. The “Moscow criterion” in British nuclear doctrine was perceived by successive Governments as the central requirement of our deterrence.

Today, in our increasingly uncertain and unstable post-Cold War environment, our possession of these weapons is solely political, according to the Government. Our submarines on patrol are at several days’ notice to fire, and since 1994 we have not targeted our missiles on any state. The Government imply that we secure political leverage to our advantage with this £50 billion expenditure on renewal—equivalent to the entire Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget for 50 years, and representing less than 1% of all global nuclear capability. The Government state that they are still committed to a nuclear weapon-free world, and that the retention of those weapons gives us a political capability, but they do not state what political conditions they are seeking to achieve to bring this about, nor how they intend to secure them. The argument also follows that we secure a voice with this political tool by retaining our independent nuclear capability, but this has not always been the case either.

It was interesting to read the Cabinet papers from the period between the early 1960s and the signing of the NPT. Both the Macmillan and Wilson Governments argued for a NATO nuclear force. In 1963, Macmillan and Kennedy agreed in principle,

“to use their best endeavours to develop a NATO Nuclear Force … and a new component may be introduced in the shape of internationally-owned and internationally-manned surface ships or submarines armed with Polaris missiles”.

The Wilson Government continued with this and formally proposed the establishing of an “Atlantic Nuclear Force”, including a “mixed-manned element” which,

“would allow the non-nuclear countries to take part in a meaningful way”.

The Cabinet conclusion of 26 March 1965 went further, proposing a single European vote on doctrine and deployment,

“if the major nations of Europe achieve full political unity, in such a way as to enable the European vote to be cast as one. The European unit exercising a single European vote would have the same veto rights as individual Governments taking part in the Force”.

Therefore, pre-NPT, there was a vibrant debate in government and in Parliament, including in this House, about the Government’s ability to have both a combined deterrent approach and a combined doctrine with our European partners.

Therefore, if the Government’s position today is markedly different from that, which it clearly is—that our ownership of nuclear weapons is purely political, that it is imperative that it is independent, and that it is not concerned with warfighting—we are justified in asking how active their commitment is to disarmament. We will discover this in the periodic review, but there was little optimism among our witnesses that it will contain radical proposals. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, indicated, the impetus proposed by the 2010 review will need to be restored. Even that seems unlikely.

Given the committee’s assessment that the security environment is now more uncertain and unstable, it is imperative that the Government put their full weight behind pillar 1 of the three pillars of the 2010 NPT review conference action plan on disarmament. Action 3 refers to,

“implementing the unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals … through unilateral, bilateral, regional and multilateral measures”.

Dr Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, told the committee in a pre-released text that the United States does not agree that that pillar is a co-equal partner with other aspects of the NPT. He said that it was an “artefact” and denied that disarmament was co-equal with other elements of the NPT. This is particularly disturbing, especially as he then sought to outline what he termed the “conditions” for disarmament. Interestingly, he told us that the “conditions” for disarmament are now termed the “environment” for disarmament. He said at Wilton Park that it,

“might be possible to ameliorate conditions in the global security environment so as to make that environment more conducive to further progress toward—and indeed, ultimately to achieve—nuclear disarmament”.

However, France, Russia and the US, among others, argue that competition among the great powers has to be overcome first, and that seems unlikely.

The United States Government also fail to recognise that they are reneging on the JCPOA and to recognise concerns about the pause of the new START, and that moving away from the INF treaty is itself creating more instability. When the US national security adviser John Bolton was asked on 18 June about the extension of START, he said that there is,

“no decision, but I think it’s unlikely”.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Russia is seeking an opportunity to make America seem as if it is reneging on its commitments and thereby not moving towards a Russian approach.

What does this mean for the UK Government? In a debate last year, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, used very strong words about the ban treaty. If there is a vacuum of inactivity, it is no surprise that countries are frustrated. That frustration means that they are looking for alternatives through the ban treaty and other processes. Although the committee does not endorse them, it understands them, and that is why the UK needs to be proactive in this period.