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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:18 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 6:18 pm, 16th July 2019

I thank the committee for its truly excellent report, which rightly draws attention to the serious dangers faced by the world today with its rising nuclear risk but does so in a sober and balanced way.

I am going to focus only on the rising risk of nuclear conflict in Europe and the consequent need, despite present tensions with Russia, to keep all channels of communication open. In Georgia, for example, Russia has been in effective control of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since they declared independence in 1992. As a result of the ill-fated war of August 2008, Russian troops remain on Georgian soil only 20 miles from Tbilisi, the capital—hardly the distance of Windsor from London. Little or no progress has been made in getting Russian troops to withdraw from the line of control. Not surprisingly, Georgia, with its European aspirations, experiences Russia as a continuing influence in its internal affairs. Only last Thursday, President Putin made a long speech totally distorting Georgian history and its relationship with Russia, with a view to reinforcing its claims over Georgian territory.

Then of course we should not forget the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which, whatever the historic ties of Crimea with Russia, was a flagrant breach of international law, as was the incursion into eastern Ukraine, with thousands killed and the civil strife which this stirred up still continuing. More than 80,000 Russian troops are stationed in and around its borders. In the light of this, it is not surprising that the Baltic states, with their Russian-speaking minorities, have felt uneasy. About 28% of Estonians and about 25% of Latvians are ethnic Russians. They may indeed be loyal citizens of their state, but the presence of ethnic Russians in other states has given Russia a pretext for interference elsewhere. In the light of clear evidence of a Russian determination to spread their sphere of influence, by force if necessary, it was only sensible for NATO to establish an enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states. This is not large—just four multinational battalion-size battle groups—but their presence acts as a clear signal of NATO’s solidarity with the Baltic states. This in turn highlights the continuing need for the existence of NATO—a NATO with clear policies and firm resolve. Anything which weakens this, such as a breach with the United States over NATO, is to be deeply regretted.

That small EFP is of course not strong enough to resist a major military advance, but it takes its place within an overall system of deterrence. According to estimates, the Russians possess some 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons—and we need to remind ourselves that each one of these would create devastation on the scale of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. In 1994, the UK got rid of its last tactical nuclear weapons but it is reliably reported that the United States has 150 non-strategic gravity warheads stationed in Europe, with six nuclear weapons facilities in five NATO countries. I was slightly surprised to read in paragraph 44 of the report:

“Tactical nuclear weapons differ from strategic nuclear weapons in that they are envisaged to be used in fighting and winning a war, as opposed to strategic nuclear weapons, which are used to deter conflict”.

Contrary to this, and following the late, highly revered Sir Michael Quinlan, at whose feet I had the privilege to sit for many years, I have always understood that tactical nuclear weapons, although their use has to be credible, are not strictly speaking war-fighting weapons in the way that conventional weapons are, but are in place to make deterrence as a whole more credible. The calculation that their use would be more likely than that of a strategic weapon, plus the fear of escalation to strategic level, makes the system of deterrence stronger.

In relation to that, I note particularly what the report says about the danger of dual-capable systems in paragraphs 49, 50 and 65. Such systems open up the possibility in a conflict of a misreading and miscalculation, blurring the threshold between conventional and nuclear weapons, one which it is important to keep. An enemy might not be able to judge what kind of weapon was being used against them, conventional or nuclear, and therefore might misread the situation, miscalculate and make a disproportionate response.

I also very much agree with what the report says about developments in cyberwarfare at paragraphs 51 to 65. This has two aspects. I have long believed that we have been too sanguine about the invulnerability of our nuclear-armed nuclear submarines. That was indeed the case a decade ago but, although we keep on being reassured, not least in this House, that they operate on different systems, technological developments are so rapid these days that we should never be complacent. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Browne, is reported at paragraph 58 as saying, that,

“it was unwise to think that because the UK’s nuclear weapons system is submarine-based it is ‘air gapped’ (the term for operating systems that are not connected to the public internet). He noted that there had been examples of ‘jumping the air-gap’, for example in Iran”.

Secondly, arising from this, what would be the use of our submarines if the whole NATO command-and-control system was brought down, or the whole country’s power supply? This means, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, has rightly emphasised, that the cyber threat must now be a major priority. We cannot rest content with thinking that because we possess a nuclear deterrent we are safe. New developments should make us always question past nostrums.

In the light of these very serious dangers in Europe, I believe we should seek special talks with Russia about increasing confidence, minimising risk and arms reduction in this area. I strongly agree with paragraphs 35 to 37 of the report that, despite present tensions with Russia, we should keep every channel open to discuss these security issues. Sadly, there is still a real threat of incursions and pressure from Russia in Europe, with the rising nuclear risk involved. The government response to the paper lists all the fora available where dialogue takes place—the NATO-Russia Council among others—and using those should be a continuing priority, in order that there is maximum understanding on all sides and the minimum possibility of a miscalculation or accident. I very much hope, with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that the Minister will be able to say more about this.