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Nuclear Weapons: Failsafe Review

Volume 828: debated on Monday 6 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the plans of the United States of America’s Department of Defense to commission an independent review of the safety, security, and reliability of its (1) nuclear weapons, (2) nuclear command, control and communications (NC3), and (3) integrated tactical warning and attack assessment systems; and whether they intend to carry out a similar failsafe review.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests.

My Lords, it would not be appropriate for His Majesty’s Government to comment on the United States Government’s plans to commission an independent review into the safety, security and reliability of their nuclear capabilities. We have absolute confidence in the safety, security and reliability of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent, but for the purpose of safeguarding national security, we will not provide detailed comment on arrangements for its assurance.

My Lords, on 27 February, the Minister for Europe, Leo Docherty, addressed the UN Conference on Disarmament. He mentioned emerging threats posed by new technologies, promised transparency, and committed to the continuing development of concrete initiatives in reducing the risk of the use of nuclear weapons. He did not mention the US Administration’s ongoing public and independent review of the safety and reliability of their nuclear weapons, command and control, and warning systems to reduce the chance of a blunder or miscalculation, particularly from cyber threats, as an example of a confidence-building, concrete, risk reduction initiative. Since all nuclear-armed states face the same risks, surely this is a concrete and transparent risk reduction initiative, which the UK and France, at least, as nuclear and NATO allies, should also commission. Will this be on the agenda for the Prime Minister’s meeting with President Macron on Friday?

As I said in my initial response to the noble Lord, there is a very robust system within the United Kingdom, as he will be of aware, for how we deal with the safety of our nuclear weapons—there is a surveillance programme to check that they are continuing to be reliable and safe—their security and the regulatory regime that covers our nuclear activity. We continue to invest in future capabilities to underwrite safety and performance. That includes collaboration with France under the 2010 Teutates treaty; we are jointly building and operating a hydrodynamic trials facility—EPURE—in France and a complementary capability, AWE. It is interesting that the United States last carried out a review in 1991, I think. I am aware of the noble Lord’s organisation and I pay tribute to his knowledge. His interest in this matter has been encouraging the US to carry out a review, but I reassure noble Lords that there are very robust structures within the United Kingdom.

My Lords, are not the issues addressed by this Question highly sensitive and probably better dealt with privately rather than on the Floor of your Lordships’ House?

I thank my noble friend for his observation. I understand the interest of your Lordships in the general frameworks which apply, and that is something that I am happy to comment on.

Should the Government’s focus not be on maintaining continuous at-sea deterrence, which has been unbroken since 1969, but which the Minister and many others know is under increasing strain given the longevity of the Vanguard submarines and the delays in the Dreadnought class? Does not the whole focus of the Government need to be on ensuring that Dreadnought can come in in time to take the strain?

Indeed. I reassure your Lordships that the Government are fully committed to maintaining that independent minimum credible nuclear deterrent based on a continuous at-sea deterrence posture. We do not anticipate any challenge to the transition from Vanguard to Dreadnought.

My Lords, I do not expect the Minister to comment in detail, as she mentioned—of course not—but, in general, she will be aware that on several occasions in the past, human override has averted potentially catastrophic nuclear weapons use. The point that has been made is not about the safety of those systems themselves, in engineering terms, but, given the encroaching autonomy of decision- making throughout industry, including in the military, the complexity of the interrelationship between them, and the increasing reliance on artificial intelligence, the dangers of averting that by human override are constantly being eroded. So, while the Minister cannot comment in detail, will she accept that very great danger and assure us that the highest priority is being given to seeing that that human override—the decision by human beings—is not being undermined by the complexity and the increasing use of autonomous, digital-based systems when it comes to nuclear weapons?

The noble Lord asks a very important question. We are cognisant of—we are certainly not complacent about—the swiftly changing picture of threat or the swiftly changing and challenging situation of artificial intelligence. With reference to the core of the noble Lord’s question, we will ensure that, regardless of any use of AI in our strategic systems, human political control of our nuclear weapons is maintained at all times, and we strongly encourage other nuclear states to make a similar commitment. While I cannot go into detail, the noble Lord will be aware that there are a number of very robust procedures that would stop either an unauthorised intervention or a state intervention.

I am sure many noble Lords understand my noble friend the Minister’s reluctance to share any detailed information but, in general terms, given that the United States has commissioned this review, what plans are there for the UK Government to learn from any suggestions or recommendations of that review in the United States?

I thank my noble friend. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Reid, a moment ago, we encourage other nations to be vigilant about the risk and we share information and intelligence. We are always willing to look at what other nations do.

My Lords, is not the most dangerous situation in the world currently presented by both Iran and North Korea? Given that Iran has now produced enough enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons and that, in 2022, North Korea launched at least 95 ballistic and other weapons, some of which have an intercontinental capability, can the Minister tell the House what response we have received from our colleagues, international partners and, indeed, those who would be our adversaries on the United Nations Security Council?

These are matters of profound concern, as the noble Lord rightly indicates. We deploy whatever influence we can in the appropriate fora, whether at the United Nations or in other diplomatic or bilateral defence discussions. We deplore what Iran and North Korea are doing. There is a consistent call upon them to desist but, as the noble Lord will be aware, these are two covert, secretive and independent states. It is difficult to influence or leverage any positive response to the entreaties that the international community makes.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what recent conversations the MoD has had with NATO and other key defence allies about this important review? Is it our intention to follow suit with our failsafe review, as outlined in the Question, and what would be the proposed timescale?

At the risk of being tedious, I simply reiterate to the noble Baroness what I have been saying: we have a very robust structure within the United Kingdom. It is not only inherently robust in terms of the MoD construct but monitored and regulated both within the MoD and externally. We are satisfied that we have due regard to all possible risks or vulnerability. It is for other states to make their decision as to how they deal with the presence of nuclear weaponry, but I indicated earlier the partnership we have with France. I think that is an interesting example of where there is knowledge sharing.

My Lords, of course, we support the nuclear deterrent but the US has said that the failsafe review of its nuclear posture

“offers an historic opportunity to reduce the risk of nuclear use today and for generations to come.”

It says:

“The failsafe review must result in concrete actions”

to make both the US and the world safer. So, notwithstanding her earlier comments, can the Minister say what discussions or, indeed, involvement we have had on such an important review, which is ultimately about the security of the world, particularly given the current uncertainties?

As I have indicated to the House, we have in place an array of safeguards, checks and structures to ensure that we are responsive to any identified vulnerability or potential area of risk, however that risk might arise. As I said earlier, it is for individual sovereign states to make their own decisions about how they deal with these matters. It would be wrong to suggest that the United States, for example, regularly does this. I pointed out that the last review was in 1991—it is for the United States to make its decision upon that and absolutely right that it does so. It is also right for the United Kingdom to make its own determination. But I reassure the House that we constantly liaise and speak with allies, we share intelligence and we always want to learn from good practice.