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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 38, June 1999

Nuclear Disarmament Issues in the UK Parliament: More Questions than Answers
By Nicola Butler


British Parliamentarians in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have sought to keep nuclear arms control and disarmament on the agenda in recent months, despite a lack of new information or initiatives from the Government. The war over Kosovo has dominated proceedings in both Houses of Parliament. However, politicians from most of the parties represented at Westminster continue to ask questions on all aspects of British nuclear policy - from practical aspects of the Trident programme such as costs, infrastructure, and deployment, to the Government's stance on arms control and disarmament.

The UK's future contribution to nuclear disarmament is a regular theme of questioning, reflecting increasing concern about a lack of progress since last year's Strategic Defence Review (SDR). The impact on the non-proliferation regime of the South Asian nuclear tests has also been the subject of debate in both Houses of Parliament. A wide range of different views have been put forward concerning the sensitive issue of how Britain - as the former colonial power and a nuclear-weapon State - should respond to increasing tensions on the subcontinent and the emerging missile race.

NATO nuclear policy and the closely related question of the UK's own strategic and sub-strategic nuclear doctrine have also been a focus of attention in the run up to the NATO summit. In particular, members of the all-party Defence Select Committee have tried to piece together the different elements of British nuclear posture, during their inquiry into the Future of NATO.

Finally, concerns about missile proliferation and developments on Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) in the United States have led a number parliamentarians to probe the British government's policy in this area. The emerging picture is of conflicting pressures on UK policy, as the Government tries to balance its own support for the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, with the need not to offend its key ally, the United States, and the desire to promote British commercial interest in the US BMD programme.

The NPT and Nuclear Disarmament

The UK's progress on nuclear disarmament has featured in many of the monthly sessions of oral questions on Defence and on Foreign Affairs, with many MPs expressing concern about the state of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. In May, Chris Mullin MP (Labour) asked in Defence Orals if there had been any Government discussions on a successor system for Trident - a suggestion that was strenuously denied by Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson. Malcolm Savidge MP (Labour) followed up by asking how the Government would give "fresh impetus" to the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament process. Later, David Chaytor MP (Labour) also highlighted the "very slow pace" of nuclear arms reductions and asked if this could put the future of the NPT review process and the CTBT at risk. Referring to the Strategic Defence Review (SDR), Robertson insisted that Britain had "shown by example" that the Labour Government would bring "a considerably greater sense of urgency than previous Administrations did to previous negotiations". (1) In the SDR the UK set out its policy that "when we are satisfied with progress towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons, we will ensure that British nuclear weapons are included in negotiations". (2)

Similarly, in May's Foreign Affairs Oral Questions, Dr Lynne Jones (Labour) asked about Britain's stance at the 1999 NPT PrepCom and how the Government intended to "achieve the aim of ridding the world of nuclear weapons". The response from Minister of State, Tony Lloyd was to fall back on reiterating the achievements of the SDR and the hope that negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty would soon get underway in Geneva. (3) One year on from the SDR there is little recognition that as the international situation changes Britain might need some new thinking in the area of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. It is clear that some parliamentarians are growing frustrated at the way the SDR is trotted out in answer to any question as if Defence Policy has been frozen in time.

India and Pakistan

Government policy towards India and Pakistan has also been a focus for questions and debate. Also in May, the House of Commons, both Crispin Blunt (Conservative) and Robin Corbett (Labour) queried British aid to Pakistan. Blunt highlighted reports of Pakistani procurement of missile technology from North Korea. Meanwhile, Corbett suggested that the public would "find it hard to understand why substantial aid should go to Pakistan when it can seemingly find all the money that it needs to develop nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery". In response, Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, argued that "although we must take action, it should not be the poor of Pakistan who pay the price". Nonetheless, Short reported that she had "made it absolutely clear to the Governments of both India and Pakistan that everything that we do will be reviewed in the light of the nuclear tests". (4)

The question of using economic leverage against India and Pakistan was also raised in the House of Lords, where Baroness Rawlings (Conservative) urged the Government "not to support sanctions and not to veto World Bank or IMF credits". Instead, the Baroness wondered what could be done to help "establish a stable nuclear deterrent relationship between India and Pakistan". On behalf of the Government, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean called on India and Pakistan "to adhere unconditionally to the relevant non-proliferation regimes and not to deploy nuclear weapons or delivery systems". (5) However, no linkage was made with Britain's own insistence that nuclear weapons provide the "supreme guarantee" of security for itself and its NATO allies.

NATO Nuclear Doctrine

Following German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer's attempt to raise the question of a no-first-use policy for NATO, the Defence Select Committee considered the British Government's position during its inquiry into the Future of NATO. The possibility of a no-first-use policy for Britain had been proposed in Labour Party documents prior to the 1997 General Election. However, no-first-use was considered and rejected during the SDR and the UK has strongly opposed any change of NATO nuclear policy. In response to questioning from Harry Cohen MP (Labour), the Secretary of State for Defence gave the Government's reasoning as follows:

"We believe that this [a declaration of no-first-use] might actually be the opposite of encouraging or reassuring and might detract from the concept of deterrence. Deterrence is essentially based on the doubt that is in any potential aggressor's mind, which has to be kept as uncertain as possible. A declaration of 'no-first-use' would simplify any potential aggressor's planning because the clear implication would be that that potential aggressor could mount a substantial conventional, or a chemical or biological assault, without any fear of a nuclear response. So to add that into it would, we believe, be more dangerous than to leave the uncertainties that basically underpin the deterrent posture at the present moment." (6)

The Defence Committee also noted the view of Ambassador Thomas Graham of the Lawyers' Alliance for World Security, "that the goal of non-proliferation could be best pursued by NATO lowering the political importance of nuclear weapons by adopting a 'no-first-use of nuclear weapons' policy". (7) However, it is clear that the majority of Defence Committee members support retaining some UK nuclear forces. As a result, the Committee was able to conclude only "that this doctrine of 'mutual uncertainty' requires both potential aggressors and NATO to live with the uncertainties about a potential attack by weapons of mass destruction and a potential nuclear response." (8)

Trident and Sub-Strategic Deterrence

The question of how Trident fulfils its sub-strategic nuclear role has also been a theme for the Defence Committee over the past year. After questioning of government officials during its inquiries on the SDR and the Future of NATO, the Committee recommended that the Government clarify both the UK's strategic and sub-strategic nuclear policy. (9)

The SDR defined sub-strategic deterrence policy as "retaining an option for a limited strike that would not automatically lead to a full scale nuclear exchange". This has raised questions as to how the use of a nuclear weapon against another country could be "seen as anything other than a strategic assault or a strategic threat". (10) MPs have also questioned whether the sub-strategic role is intended to deter non-nuclear States, potentially in conflict with the UK's negative security assurance, as contained in statements to the Conference on Disarmament and enshrined in UNSCR 984 (April 1995).

The long awaited clarification of strategic and sub-strategic nuclear policy came one month before NATO's Washington summit, in response to a written question from Jim Fitzpatrick MP (Labour). The Secretary of State for Defence replied:

"The purpose of our nuclear forces is to deter aggression against the United Kingdom or its Allies. The Strategic Defence Review confirmed that, in addition to its strategic deterrent role, Trident would also perform the sub-strategic nuclear role, formerly assigned to RAF Tornado aircraft. A sub-strategic element is an essential component of a nuclear deterrent policy. In extreme circumstances of self defence, a capability for the more limited use of nuclear weapons would allow us to signal to an aggressor that he has miscalculated our resolve, without using the full destructive power that Trident offers." (11)

Unfortunately, this statement does not seem to make UK policy on sub-strategic deterrence any clearer than before. The position has changed little since then Conservative Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, in 1993 announced that Trident would fulfil a sub-strategic nuclear role. British nuclear posture remains closely based on what the current Secretary of State describes as "the consensus within NATO on the deterrent value of nuclear weapons". (12)

Ballistic Missile Defence

As Ballistic Missile Defence has moved up the political agenda in the United States, the issue has received a higher profile in the British Parliament. The UK's approach to Ballistic Missile Defence was reviewed as part of the SDR. The Review concluded that the risk to Britain from the ballistic missiles of nations of concern was "many years off", but that "British forces must be able to operate in regions, such as the Gulf, where they might face these risks". As a result, the Government decided that it would be premature to decide acquiring such a capability, but that the UK would keep its options open by continuing to monitor developments in both the risks posed by ballistic missiles and the technologies available to counter them. (13)

Development of some form of missile defence is strongly advocated by a number of Conservative MPs, in particular David Atkinson, who has twice been rapporteur on transatlantic co-operation on ballistic missile defence for the Western European Union Assembly. Atkinson believes that Europe is "defenceless against ballistic missile attacks" and that Government policy is "complacent and alarming". He argues that "… if the United States now plans to defend itself in this way, why not Europe, and why not the United Kingdom?" (14)

The Government response from Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, John Spellar, has been to note that this is an area in which "the technology is changing extremely rapidly" and that "it would be premature at this stage to acquire such a capability because it might prove ineffective". Another consideration for the British Government is "the considerable cost of ballistic missile defence" and the need to "prioritise expenditure". (15)

Defence Secretary George Robertson has also indicated in Parliament that Britain's policy currently favours arms control over missile defences. In Defence Oral Questions, Anne McIntosh MP (Conservative) asked whether in light of developments in India and Pakistan, "the UK should consider - perhaps with its international partners - the need for an eventual ballistic missile defence system for the UK in future?" Robertson's response was that:

"… We are not in favour of developing ballistic missile defence systems. We are in favour of the anti-ballistic missile treaty, which was one of the pioneering forerunners of arms control legislation." (16)

In Written Questions on the same day, Robertson elaborated:

"… the matter of ballistic missiles causes concern across the world, and that is why it is kept under constant examination. As and when the technology is available to deal with that threat, we will examine it carefully. In the mean time, we must step up the discussions on arms control, so that countries will not feel the need to acquire such weapons systems." (17)

Nonetheless, the UK remains reticent about explicitly criticising US efforts to develop BMD and their impact on the ABM Treaty. Although the UK has "made clear to the United States the importance we attach to [the ABM Treaty]" (18), it has also accepted assurances from the US Administration that "no decision to deploy such a system has yet been taken, nor will it be before the year 2000" and that, "if necessary, it would work in good faith with the Russian Government to negotiate amendments to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty". (19)

In addition, although Government spokespeople in both Houses of Parliament have made references to efforts to prevent proliferation of ballistic missiles, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, the possibility of arms control discussions specifically about reducing, limiting or eliminating ballistic missiles has yet to be raised in either House.

The Government has also had to respond to a number of questions and criticism from its own benches on its position on BMD. Lord Kennet (Labour) has consistently raised the issue in the House of Lords, whilst a number of Labour MPs have voiced concerns in the Commons about the impact of current US developments on arms control. In response to David Atkinson's comments, Harry Cohen warned of what could happen "if the United States decided to contravene the anti-ballistic missile treaty… We would be on a most dangerous path to nuclear proliferation if we went for a so-called ballistic defence approach, which would only increase the pace of a new nuclear arms race". (20)

Finally, questioning from Labour parliamentarians, in particular Lord Kennet and Alan Simpson MP has revealed significant participation by British companies in US BMD programs. The 1985 US/UK "SDI" (Strategic Defence Initiative) Memorandum of Understanding continues to provide for both government to government agreements (Letters of Offer and Acceptance) and for contracts to be established between the US and UK firms and universities. (21) Areas of common interest include performance of radars and other sensors, the guidance of interceptors, understanding the characteristics of ballistic missiles, the effective interception of ballistic missile warheads, and operating in coalition with Allies in air defence. (22) The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency leads the programmes (23), indicating a potential conflict between the interests of this government agency and the commercial interests it represents, and British foreign policy in support of the ABM Treaty.


Although at the time, the Labour Government's Strategic Defence Review broke new ground in the disarmament process, especially in the area of transparency, some sections of it are now increasingly being used to justify a "business as usual" approach to arms control and disarmament. This is particularly clear in the UK's rejection of a no-first-use policy and its reiteration of a nuclear posture based closely on an unchanging NATO nuclear doctrine.

A year on from the SDR, further initiatives now need to be taken by the government if the document is to make a meaningful contribution to the international arms control and disarmament process.

Notes and References

1. House of Commons, Official Report, Defence Oral Questions, The Stationery Office, 10 May 1999, columns 10-11.

2. The Strategic Defence Review, Supporting Essay 5, July 1998.

3. House of Commons, Official Report, Foreign Affairs Oral Questions, 18 May 1999, columns 869-870.

4. House of Commons, Official Report, International Development Oral Questions, 12 May 1999, columns 300-301.

5. House of Lords, Official Report, Oral Question on India and Pakistan, 20 April 1999, columns 1089-1106.

6. House of Commons Defence Committee, "The Future of NATO", HC 39 of 1998-99, Q308.

7. "The Future of NATO", HC 39 of 1998-99, paragraph 37.

8. "The Future of NATO", HC 39 of 1998-99, paragraph 39.

9. See House of Commons Defence Committee, "The Strategic Defence Review", Volume I, HC 138-I of 1997-98, paragraph 152, and "The Future of NATO", HC 39 of 1998-99, paragraph 39.

10. House of Commons Defence Committee, "The Strategic Defence Review", Volume III, Q3009-3015.

11. House of Commons, Official Report, Written Questions, 26 March 1999, column 433.

12. "Nuclear Disarmament in the Modern World", speech by Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, Aberdeen University, 1 March 1999.

13. The Strategic Defence Review, Supporting Essay 5.

14. House of Commons, Official Report, Britain in the World Adjournment Debate, 10 June 1999, column 821-822.

15. Britain in the World Adjournment Debate, column 871-872.

16. House of Commons, Official Report, Defence Oral Questions, 10 May 1999, column 10.

17. House of Commons, Official Report, Defence Oral Questions, 10 May 1999, column 13.

18. House of Lords, Official Report, Written Questions, 25 March 1999, WA172.

19. House of Lords, Official Report, Written Questions, 4 February 1999, WA232.

20. Britain in the World, Adjournment Debate, column 824.

21. House of Lords, Official Report, Written Questions, 8 February 1999, WA8.

22. House of Commons, Official Report, Written Questions, 12 November 1998, column 291.

23. House of Lords, Official Report, Written Questions, 8 February 1999, WA8.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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