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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 34, February 1999

Speech by UK Defence Secretary

'Nuclear Disarmament in the Modern World,' Speech by the Rt Hon George Robertson MP, Secretary of State for Defence, Aberdeen University, 1 March 1999; text as prepared for delivery

"One of the most critical responsibilities which any British Defence Secretary has is to ensure the effectiveness, safety and security or our independent nuclear weapons until we can responsibly relinquish them.

Nuclear weapons no longer dominate our thinking about defence as they once did and the circumstances in which we might contemplate using them seem more remote than ever. But they are still an important influence on our security policy, not least because of the increasing problem of nuclear proliferation.

It is fitting that I should be making my first major speech on nuclear policy in Scotland giving the inaugural address at this splendid Scottish Centre for International Security. For over 30 years the Clyde submarine base has been the home of Polaris and now Trident. But it is worth underlining the fact that responsibility for maintaining the deterrent is not confined to Scotland.

Yes, the facilities at Faslane and Coulport make a vitally important contribution to our nuclear capability. That is where the submarines are based, and Trident warheads are stored. But an equally essential contribution is made by the Atomic Weapons Establishment sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield in the South of England where the key weapon research, manufacturing and dismantling facilities are sited.

When we fought the election in 1997 we promised to retain Trident while pressing for multilateral negotiations towards mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons. We stand by that commitment we made to the British people.

But beyond that basic commitment to retain Trident, we examined in our Strategic Defence Review all elements of our nuclear policy and posture. The result is a policy which is both realistic and prudent but also forward looking, with a nuclear free world as the ultimate objective.

We are committed to working hard towards that objective. We have already made a difference. However, we should be under no illusions that this will be anything other than a long, hard slog. ... There are still far more nuclear weapons in the world today than can be justified by any rational security calculation. The US and Russia have, of course, reduced their stockpiles from Cold War levels, but this process needs to continue.

We welcome the work that they are undertaking with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that the surplus fissile material from the weapons they have dismantled is never again available for use in nuclear weapons. This is an essential, and often overlooked element of the process of ridding the world of nuclear weapons and we are working with them in the G8 to build further on this.

Today I make another, and heartfelt, plea to the Russian Duma to ratify the START II treaty and thereby create the conditions for further substantial American and Russian reductions. I believe that this is in both their own national interest and the interest of international safety. And we must go beyond that and extend the process to tackle the problem of shorter-range nuclear weapons, so-called 'tactical' systems, which are of particular concern to us in Europe.

We estimate that Russia probably has around 10,000 of these weapons, and it is intensely frustrating that the pledges which Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin made to reduce them have still not been honoured. The US and Russia are pledged to consider these weapons in START III and NATO is trying to address the issues with Russia in the NATO/Russia Permanent Joint Council. There has to be a new sense of urgency in these processes if we are to realise our goal of moving to common security at much lower levels of nuclear weapons.

But our policy has to proceed on a much wider front on this vital subject. Another critical step on the road to disarmament is to ensure that no more fissile material is produced anywhere in the world for use in nuclear weapons. Without such a ban there is no guarantee that the important steps being made to reduce the nuclear of nuclear weapons in the world cannot be reversed.

The negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty was one of the steps agreed at the NPT Review and Extension Conference in 1995. Four years on, we are still waiting for negotiations to begin in earnest. Let me make it clear that Britain has already ceased production of fissile material for weapons and placed all our military enrichment and reprocessing operations under safeguards. In the Strategic Defence Review we declared our holdings and undertook to place our surplus stocks under safeguards. A Cut-Off Treaty is an essential precursor to nuclear disarmament. ... And this Government will be working hard for an early and successful conclusion to negotiations. We are ready to start today, and I find it hard to understand why others seem reluctant. We must ensure that nuclear weapons spread no further.

This means universal adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the global implementation of strengthened IAEA safeguards. Endorsing these was almost the first decision we took on entering government in 1997. ...

Implementation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty will make a major contribution [to preventing proliferation]... We ratified this last year and now call upon the others who must ratify to bring the Treaty into force to do so as soon as possible. In particular, along with the rest of the international community, we call for India and Pakistan to sign and ratify the Treaty. In the meantime we will help to set up the international monitoring system specified in the Treaty to ensure that no-one can hope to test nuclear weapons without being detected.

Some may ask when will we put British nuclear weapons on the negotiating table if we want a nuclear free world. It is a reasonable question but not as simple as it may sound. As we work for ultimate nuclear disarmament, ours is meanwhile a policy of minimum deterrence. The number of nuclear weapons we need has never depended directly on how many other countries have them.

The rigorous reassessment undertaken by the Strategic Defence Review has already enabled us to make deep reductions in our planned number of nuclear weapons. Our operational stockpile is well under 10% of the strategic warheads permitted to the US and Russia - even leaving aside the very large number of shorter range weapons not covered by START.

The top priority must still be to achieve further reductions in the massive nuclear holdings of the United States and Russia. We know that the United States is ready to take the START process to the next stage. We call on Russia to match that commitment.

For now, Britain can best contribute by setting a lead through our philosophy of minimum deterrence combined with steps to build a wider framework for nuclear arms reductions, particularly through measures which improve transparency and confidence. This is the course that we have set in the Strategic Defence Review and which we are determined to pursue.

Before the Strategic Defence Review was concluded we had become the only nuclear-weapon State to operate just a single weapon system, with the removal of the RAF's nuclear role and the destruction of its free-fall bombs. And we announced in the SDR the reduced numbers of warhead we will deploy in the future: only 48 per submarine and fewer than 200 operationally available in all.

Looking back to the nuclear forces Britain deployed at the end of the Cold War these changes mean that we now have only half the number of operationally available warheads with less than 30% of the explosive power. And we will deploy no more warheads on Trident than were deployed on Polaris when it first came into service.

We thus have fewer weapons than any of the five nuclear-weapons States. But, significantly, the radical changes we made in the Strategic Defence Review mean that the United Kingdom today also has fewer nuclear warheads than it did on 5 March 1970, 29 years ago, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into force. This is a very significant milestone. It shows that this country is making genuine and real progress towards the elimination of our nuclear weapons as required by Article VI of that Treaty.

Our commitment to a minimum deterrent was underlined by our decision not to proceed with the purchase of the final seven Trident missile bodies ordered from the US. The fact that this step will also save us some £50 million over the life of the programme was a further, and welcome, benefit.

As we have repeatedly said, when we are satisfied with progress towards the goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons we will ensure that our nuclear weapons are included in multilateral negotiations on balanced reductions. But even if such negotiations are not imminent, we have started to think about their likely implications for us.

Any agreement to which we are eventually party will need to be verifiable. The verification challenges will become both more complex and even more critical than in the bilateral START process, as more States are involved and the number of weapons involved comes down to very low levels, ultimately to zero. In Britain we have considerable expertise in the disciplines necessary to monitor the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and in international safeguards on fissile material, but no direct experience of verifying nuclear arms reductions. In the Strategic Defence Review we therefore set in hand work at the Atomic Weapons Establishment to assess what technologies can contribute and what our own capabilities are. We believe Britain has a contribution to make to the essential verification regime which must underpin the disarmament to which we are all committed.

And we should not forget that nuclear disarmament involves more than just reductions in the number of weapons. Confidence-building measures can, and do, play a key role in creating the right conditions for reductions - as they did in the conventional arms control arena in preparing the ground for the CFE [Conventional Forces in Europe] Treaty. I have in mind measures like the web of de-targeting agreements between the nuclear-weapon States; proposals for improved notification of missile launches; and greater mutual transparency.

We in Britain will continue to think creatively of ways to take this process forward where we can. We took a big step in this direction in the SDR, and when I decided that we could give Russia greater advance notice of our own Trident test launches.

The Royal Navy has maintained 'Continuous At Sea Deterrence' patrols since April 1969 - very nearly 30 years. After a rigorous examination of every aspect of national nuclear posture, we took the decision in the Strategic Defence Review that deterrence continued to require that we maintain this posture, with a single submarine. But we no longer keep this at the very high readiness for action that was considered necessary during the Cold War. We now measure the submarine's readiness for action in days rather than hours.

We looked seriously at the ideas which were put to us for being apparently even more relaxed, such as by ending continuous patrolling, or storing warheads separately from the missiles. We decided against them for an important reason: we judged that these measures had the potential to exacerbate future crises rather than build confidence. The need to decide whether a crisis was so serious that we should load warheads onto missiles, or take the very visible step of putting a submarine to sea on a deterrent patrol could actually raise tension at a crucial stage. The fact is that a submarine on continuous patrol, because it is invisible and undetectable, is the most secure, and therefore crucially the most stable, means of maintaining nuclear deterrence.

The Strategic Defence Review confirmed Trident's continuing importance as a deterrent, even if, at present, we see no immediate strategic threat to the United Kingdom. Our missiles are targeted at no one - and have not been since 1994. But it is too soon to conclude that such a threat could not re-emerge, from whatever direction, within Trident's lifetime. ...

The main strands of our nuclear policy therefore continue to be based on the consensus within NATO on the deterrent value of nuclear weapons. In that sense, there is no major change from the consistent policy of previous governments. But we have brought truly fresh thinking to how that policy is implemented. ...

In the Review we judged that it was both prudent and reasonable to reveal a number of facts about our nuclear posture which had hitherto been kept secret.

  • We were prepared to explain the reduced readiness for action of the submarine on patrol.
  • We revealed precisely how many warheads were carried aboard each Trident submarine. That had never been done before.
  • We revealed more information than previous Governments had on our total stockpile of weapons, and how this compared with previous holdings.
  • We revealed for the first time how much fissile material we posses, and promised a full accounting of all the fissile material we have ever produced.

... [T]his Government is committed to open government. I want to ensure that we are not keeping information secret which we do not need to. We want to make sure that information which can be made available to those with an interest in policy, or to historians, is not unreasonably withheld. We also want to ensure that wherever possible the first-rate scientists working in the nuclear area are able to take part in wider scientific dialogue, and share the fruits of their work. I have therefore directed that my Department continue rigorously to review the classification of nuclear-related information, and to ensure that where information can safely be declassified, it is.

We know that we have a big job ahead of us. Britain's nuclear history stretches back 50 years. The records are not all readily available. And we have limited resources for the task. So I have asked my Department to arrange a seminar with interested academics and organisations so that we can get a better idea what their priorities are, to guide our work. ...

This Government has made a difference in nuclear policy. We have ensured that our deterrent is kept at the minimum essential size. We have brought a new degree of openness to our nuclear posture. We have confirmed a nuclear free world as our ultimate objective. And we have worked hard to create the conditions under which that can become a reality and not just a vision.

We have a long road ahead of us. Nuclear issues are uniquely complex and the possible implications of false steps are incalculable. This is not an area in which we should expect overnight success, nor one in which we are prepared to take risks with the security of the people of Britain. But we know our destination and have identified some of the challenges we will face along the way. Above all, we are determined to see the journey through."

Source: Ministry of Defence web-site, http://www.mod.uk

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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