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Defence: Continuous At-sea Deterrence

Volume 813: debated on Wednesday 23 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether continuous at-sea deterrence remains central to their defence policy.

My Lords, the nuclear deterrent will remain essential for as long as the global security climate demands. No alternative system is as capable, resilient or cost effective as a continuous at-sea deterrent capability based in four nuclear-armed submarines. As stated in the Government’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, we will maintain our four submarines so that at least one will always be on a continuous at-sea deterrent patrol.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for that reassuring Answer. Is she aware that such knowledge as I have in these matters was learned a very long time ago at the feet of the then Mr George Younger, whose son now sits on the Government Front Bench in your Lordships’ House? Can my noble friend confirm that the number of warheads necessary to maintain this deterrent in an effective form are definitely to hand?

Yes, I can confirm to my noble friend that, to maintain the credibility of the deterrent and the minimum destructive power needed to guarantee that it does remain credible and effective against a whole range of state nuclear threats from any direction, an assessment has been made. The UK will move to an overall nuclear weapons stockpile of no more than 260 warheads—an increase of 15% from the previous ceiling of 225. I make it clear this is neither a target nor the current number of warheads, but it represents the upper limit of what we think we might need to maintain the credibility of the deterrent.

My Lords, for over 50 years, the submarine-based nuclear deterrent has ensured peace and acted as the ultimate guarantor of our nation’s security against nuclear blackmail. Those involved in this complex, difficult and continuous enterprise deserve our thanks. Does the decision to run the Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment at Dounreay in Scotland for three years longer than planned, to meet

“the need to support the extended scope of the operational work”,—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/21; col. 101WS.]

mean that it is related to the life extension of the Vanguard class? As the PWR2 reactor will be running innumerable submarines for many more years, has there been any reassessment of the Royal Navy reactor prototype review of 2015 to see whether Vulcan should remain operating even longer?

As the noble Lord will be aware, we are conscious of the obligations of seeing through the transition from the existing class of nuclear-armed submarines to the new Dreadnought class. That Dreadnought submarine programme remains on track to enter service in the early 2030s. There will be no compromise to the UK’s continuous at-sea deterrent. On the specific points he raises, he will understand I am unable to release specific information about supply, support and logistics. But we are satisfied that our continuous at-sea deterrent is operating effectively now and discharging all its tasks and, in the transition and beyond, will continue to do that.

My Lords, arms control experts have, for years, been advocating that the P5 states—the legally recognised nuclear powers, which include the UK—reaffirm the statement made by Gorbachev and Reagan in 1985 that

“a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

I am sure the Minister is aware that just last week, the current US and Russian Presidents issued that very statement. Will the UK endorse and repeat that statement?

The noble Baroness raises an important point. Most of us in this Chamber can recall the conviction of President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that a nuclear war cannot be won and can recall the contribution that statement made to stability at that time. The avoidance of war between nuclear weapons states and the reduction of nuclear risk is one of our foremost responsibilities. We welcome the US and Russia’s joint statement on 16 June and their commitment to a bilateral strategic stability dialogue. We regard this as a serious signal of intent to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict and enhance mutual trust and security by the two countries, which hold almost 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons.

My Lords, given that a single nuclear submarine could deliver nuclear weapons with more than 100 times the destructive yield of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which incinerated over 200,000 people, mostly civilians, does my noble friend agree that while the possession of such weapons of mass destruction may be justified as a necessary evil at present, it remains the firm policy of Her Majesty’s Government to work towards the complete elimination of nuclear weapons? If so, how do they intend to advance that agenda?

I refer my noble friend to the non-proliferation treaty, which the UK regards as a cornerstone of the international multilateral architecture on nuclear issues. Over 50 years on, that treaty continues to be a success. It has created the framework to reduce tensions and arms stockpiles. The UK will continue to work for a successful NPT review conference later this year. Our core objective is to demonstrate international unity behind the treaty and strengthen its implementation.

My Lords, clearly, the nuclear deterrent contributes to the defence of the realm, and its cost to the MoD makes sense. What does the Minister make of the proposals to have a new royal yacht, which, whatever benefits it might bring to trade or global Britain, would appear to bring very little to defence? Why should the MoD be funding it?

It is not a new royal yacht; it is a new national flagship. I think that is a very good thing, if I must make my opinion clear. The noble Baroness is correct that the MoD will be responsible for the initial cost of taking the flagship through the procurement process, but the source of government funding for the rest of the project is still to be determined. To the cynics I would say: this ship will have an important national security and foreign policy function. It is not a warship, and its primary role will be to promote trade and protect the nation’s economic security.

My Lords, if our nuclear deterrent is to be credible, it must also be viable. My noble friend mentioned two aspects of that viability—the continuous at-sea deterrent and having a suitable number of warheads—but is not a third aspect that we must not hand the advantage to our adversaries by being overly prescriptive about the circumstances in which we would use that nuclear deterrent?

As my noble friend is aware, the UK has neither a first-use nor a no-first-use policy, and to avoid simplifying the calculations of our potential adversaries, we will remain deliberately ambiguous about when, how and at what scale we will contemplate use of our nuclear weapons.

My Lords, I declare my interest as patron of the Submariners Association. The Minister’s Answer was welcome. Will she pay tribute to the crews of the current Vanguard class, who are having to work extraordinarily and unbelievably hard, with significant sacrifice for themselves and their families, to keep their ageing submarines going to ensure that the continuous at-sea deterrent is sustained? They will have to continue to do so for another 10 years until the Dreadnought class comes into operational service.

Yes, I certainly echo the noble and gallant Lord’s respect and admiration for the crews on the Vanguard submarines. Every minute of every day of every week of every year, they safeguard the interests of this country and contribute to our alliance within NATO to protect our global friends and partners. We absolutely should put on record our profound appreciation of the crews of these submarines. They are deserving of our highest respect and admiration.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I reiterate our support for the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent as part of our UK defence policy and the contributions it makes to our alliances and the protection of democracy across the world. However, the recent integrated review announced an increase, as the Minister said, in the cap on the number of nuclear warheads to 260. Notwithstanding her earlier replies, can the Minister elaborate further on why this was thought necessary? What has changed to justify the increase? What consultations took place? What is the timescale for the increase to take place?

I can add little to what I said to my noble friend earlier, but I confirm to the noble Lord that we make a continuous assessment of threat—where it is emerging and what its character is. We are clear, as he will understand, that the critical adjective in relation to our deterrent is “credible”; for it to remain credible, our judgment was that we had to increase the number of warheads.