Defence Select Committee hearings

Are nuclear weapons an insurance policy?

The Strategic Nuclear ‘Deterrent’: the strategic context has been the subject of a House of Commons Defence Select Committee (DSC) Inquiry in March with strategists and academics answering MPs questions. The views of industry are still to be heard. On 14th   March The Committee heard evidence against updating Trident from Dan Plesch, Foreign Policy Centre, Kate Hudson, CND and Rebecca Johnson, Acronym Institute. Pro-nuclear views were given by Lee Willett & Michael Codner from the Royal United Services Institute, and Michael Quinlan, International Institute of Strategic Studies and former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence.

The clear message from the anti-nuclear experts was that Britain should take a lead in nuclear disarmament right now. Dr. Johnson likened the theory of “nuclear deterrence” to a voodoo charm: an unverifiable supernatural power that had failed to deter recent wars and deflected attention from more proven remedies for international tensions.  Kate Hudson advocated a courageous initiative not to replace Trident in order to help restore confidence in the NPT, support multilateral disarmament and reduce rather than exacerbate proliferation. Dan Plesch said that as Britain is totally dependent on the USA for Trident, any new weapon would be similarly dependent. He recommended ending the sham of having an independent nuclear weapon and establishing Britain as a non-nuclear State.

Those supporting nuclear weapons found it hard to justify their retention, as they accepted there is no current credible nuclear threat and the threats that do face us would not be met by a nuclear strike.  Michael Quinlan considered it unlikely that Britain would be thrown off the UN Security Council if we were no longer a nuclear state, adding that even if we were, he did not think that was a good enough reason to keep nuclear weapons. But along with some other speakers, he still maintained that we need nuclear weapons as an ‘insurance policy’ against future threats. Unfortunately this misleading ‘insurance policy’ simile went unchallenged.

A week later academics were called to speak at the DSC on 21st March. NPT experts Prof. John Simpson and David Broucher from Southampton University were measured in their assessment of international relations and potential threats. Simpson considered that diplomatically, it would be difficult for Britain to help the NPT survive if we are committed to nuclear weapons for the next 30 years. He thought pressure for a hasty Blair/Bush decision on new build rested on the USA need to know if there is to be an extension to the UK/US missile agreement and what support it can expect on warhead development without underground testing; the other driver being the preservation of submarine building skills at Barrow. Boucher said that linking Britain’s membership of the UN Security Council to the possession of nuclear weapons was pernicious. Membership depended more on trade, industry, diplomacy and peacekeeping experience. A new British weapon was seen as a threat to the NPT and a signal in support of a new arms race. Both men advocated extending the life of Trident, together with a resumption of Arms Control and Disarmament Talks on multilateral disarmament.

Prof. Colin Grey, Reading University, believes that nuclear weapons are “crown jewels” that “offer the ultimate protection of core national values” even though he admitted that he did not know if deterrence was effective. He painted an alarming picture of using nuclear weapons against terrorists and as “an alternative to accepting conventional defeat, should some expedition go very seriously wrong.” He thought that the effects of climate change to limit resources of food and water would mean nuclear weapons would be used for territorial gain.

Prof. Shaun Gregory, Bradford University, was unequivocal in his view that the principle threat to Britain is global warming, against which nuclear weapons have no role at all. He saw an historic opportunity to walk away from Britain being a nuclear State. A decision is not needed until 2010 as the current Trident fleet will last until 2025. When asked about collaboration with France, Gregory said that a highly secret Join Nuclear Commission had been established since 1992.  Going with the French on the design of a new nuclear weapons was possible, leading to un-coupling with the USA. Europe v. Nato: that is the nuclear alliance choice. Simpson’s view was that the USA wants the UK to be tied into Europe to maintain a European consensus and that Britain needs it to be a peacekeeping alliance, but not a nuclear one.
The last hearing takes place on 28th March when speakers will be Commodore Tim Hare, Thales UK; Mr Peter Whitehouse, Devonport Management Ltd; Dr Andrew Dorman, King’s College London; Dr Dominick Jenkins, Greenpeace UK; Mr Malcolm Savidge, Oxford Research Group and Dr Bruno Tertrais, Foundation for Strategic Research (Paris).

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