| This page with graphics | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports |

| Acronym Institute Home Page | Calendar | UN/CD | NPT/IAEA | UK | US | Space/BMD |

| CTBT | BWC | CWC | WMD Possessors | About Acronym | Links | Glossary |

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 74, December 2003

In the News

UK Debates Iraq War, WMD and Defence Policy

The failure to discover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq continues to rumble on as an embarrassment to the Blair Government. The real political damage is likely to be inflicted in mid-January 2004, when Lord Hutton publishes the results of his inquiry into the death of weapons scientist Dr David Kelly.1 A key issue is likely to be the extent to which the Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary are implicated in how Dr Kelly was treated, and particularly the release of his name to journalists.

The UK Government had built its case on the need to take precipitous military action against Iraq largely on the grounds that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's WMD was a serious and current threat. Despite coming under increasing criticism, the Prime Minister remained adamant that Saddam Hussein's Iraq did pose a serious threat and that it was his WMD capability that was the casus belli: "The reason we went to conflict is absolutely clear - the evidence of weapons of mass destruction."2

UK Parliament Debates War Justifications

There were numerous opportunities for UK parliamentarians to debate the rationale for war in Iraq and its aftermath when they returned from their summer recess. In September and early October, the Trades Union Congress and respective Party Conferences saw passionate feelings aired.

Whereas the Labour Party's official policy had been to support the war, there has been significant and vocal dissent both amongst its MPs and within its rank and file membership. Within the Conservative Party there were also some heavyweight critics of the invasion of Iraq. As the Conservative Party officially endorsed the action, however, it has found itself awkwardly placed to deliver any credible criticism of the policy's consequences. The Liberal Democrats, consistent opponents of the war, had no such problems in making the Government feel uncomfortable.

The Conservative Party - by now keen to try to exploit the government's problems - initiated a debate on October 22 calling for a judicial inquiry into the government's handling of the run-up to the war, of the war itself, its aftermath, and into the legal advice which the government had received. This debate enabled a range of interesting opinion to be aired. The Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee and senior Conservative backbencher, Edward Leigh, argued that the Government's travails could have been avoided if it had been more honest from the outset: "This is a gangster regime holding its people in slavery. By the way, it is sitting on the world's second largest oil reserves. We are going to get rid of it and bring back peace and democracy"? They should have done that instead of raising the canard of weapons of mass destruction..."3

Kenneth Clarke, the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, described Blair's insistence on following the US into the war on Iraq as "the worst military decision taken by this country since the Suez invasion"4. In Clarke's opinion, the real decision to go to war had been taken in Washington months before, where the case was made on the basis of regime change. His fomer Cabinet colleague, Peter Lilley, pointed out that none of the Government's documents relating to Iraq actually claimed that there was direct intelligence that Iraq actually possessed WMD: "The embarrassing conclusion is that Iraq probably did not possess currently usable weapons of mass destruction. That is why the Government made so much of the 45-minute claim ... it distracted attention away from the fact that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and could not make them for weeks or months."5 Lilley continued: "Another reason for the Government's action was, I suspect, that they were bound by the advice of Law Officers. Such advice is always taken as binding, and it stated that a pre-emptive war to secure regime change was not legitimate."6

In September, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, had questioned the Prime Minister about the assessment by Parliament's Joint Intelligence Committee that the risks of WMD falling into the hands of terrorists would increase as a result of an invasion of Iraq. Blair replied: "...it would have been totally irresponsible if we had said that that danger meant that we should allow Saddam Hussein to carry on developing them. That would have been a foolish state of affairs to have brought about. That is why I do not believe that it undermined the case for war at all."7

During the October 22 debate, the Foreign Affairs Spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell, a widely respected specialist in international relations, expressed the country's widespread scepticism: "The central question remains: did we go to war with Iraq on a prospectus that was flawed, either because the intelligence behind it was inadequate, or because that intelligence was mishandled once it had been obtained?"

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, responded with apparently contradictory statements about the government's claims. First he sought to draw a distinction between describing the nature of the Iraqi threat and representing it as an imminent threat, claiming that: "we never, ever said that there was an imminent threat."8 But when one of Labour's own backbenchers, Tony Wright, asked him if, knowing what is known now, he still believed that the Iraqi regime did represent a clear and present danger to this country, Straw replied "Yes, I do".9

Menzies Cambell also picked up on the Government's use of language in respect of the nature of the threat presented by Iraq's WMD: "...Mr. Jonathan Powell [the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff] reportedly warned on 19 September that the dossier should avoid presenting Iraq as an imminent threat, either to its neighbours or others. That seems to gainsay the warning in the foreword to the dossier published five days later on 24 September that Iraq posed a 'current and serious threat'. Exactly what were those words intended to convey to the ordinary reader? What was intended to be conveyed by the use of the expression "clear and present danger"?10

He posed the question whether, if the House of Commons had known beforehand that there was a lack of imminent threat, that the 45-minute claim related to battlefield weapons, and that the risk of WMD falling into terrorists' hands was likely to be increased by an attack on Iraq, British public opinion would have been sympathetic to the case for going to war?

In a written Parliamentary answer towards the end of October the Prime Minister deflected criticism of the 45-minute claim only referring to battlefield weapons by revealing: "... the intelligence on the 45 minute point was issued by Secret Intelligence Service on 30 August 2002. The Secret Intelligence Service report did not specify the particular delivery systems to which the time of 45 minutes applied. There was, therefore, no reference to battlefield or longer-range systems when the point was included in a formal classified Joint Intelligence Committee assessment issued on 9 September 2002, which I saw."11

UK Nonproliferation Policy and WMD

In a set-piece defence debate on October 16, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, outlined the Ministry of Defence (MoD) perspective on countering the threat from WMD: "Countering weapons proliferation and confronting the threat of terrorism will continue to occupy much of the armed forces' effort. The nature of asymmetric conflict and the readiness of certain groups to source and deploy weapons of mass destruction against us and our interests will require a flexible, fast-moving and, usually, multilateral response. There is also a danger that, in the next 30 years, new WMD powers may emerge, as the technology proliferates and technical advances make production easier. In responding to those challenges, we must recognise that the treatment of those issues is not exclusively or indeed even primarily military, but, to the extent that a military response is involved, is best managed through alliances, partnerships and co-operation."12

Hoon's explicit acknowledgement that non-military means were equally if not more important in countering the threat from WMD proliferation was widely welcomed, as was his more measured case in favour of multilateral responses, alliances and co-operation.

Malcolm Savidge, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation, put that case rather more forcefully, calling for international unity in efforts to prevent WMD proliferation and saying that the primary means of doing so must be through the United Nations, and through arms control treaties.13 While recognising that the nonproliferation regime urgently needs to be strengthened, Savidge expressed concern that the US neoconservatives' eagerness to use pre-emptive force could prove dangerously destabilising to the whole world: "Pre-emptive war is a particularly dangerous concept when it is based on flimsy intelligence evidence, on potential future weapons programmes, or on potential future alliances between states and hostile terrorist organisations with which those states have no current relationship. That gives almost carte blanche for nations to declare war against other nations."14 Savidge argued that the real lesson of September 11, 2001 was that no nation can enjoy unilateral invulnerability as a result of military power and technology. Instead, the security of each nation had to depend on the common international security of everyone.

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, reiterated the UK Government's strong support for the NPT as the "cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime". He pledged his country's intention to participate actively in the NPT review process, including the next Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) in April and May 2004 and the subsequent Review Conference in 2005. He also announced: "The UK is currently working on research into the verification of nuclear disarmament, and we will be presenting a second interim report on our studies at the next PrepCom. We intend to issue a consolidated report on this research at the 2005 Review Conference. This will contribute significantly towards one of the 13 practical steps towards disarmament identified in the Final Document of the 2000 Review Conference."15

Straw argued that the UK's record in fulfilling its NPT obligations on nuclear disarmament was "excellent", although all of the examples of modifications to the UK's nuclear weapons posture that he cited were implemented prior to the last Review Conference in 2000, and some had been undertaken before the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995. These include a reduction in deployed warheads, reduced readiness to fire, and all fissile material no longer being require for defence purposes being placed under safeguards.16

When pressed to reveal that Israel has neither signed nor ratified the NPT or the BWC, nor ratified the CWC, the Foreign Secretary revealed that the UK Government has a regular dialogue with Israel on the full range of counter-proliferation issues, including an annual senior official-level meeting specifically on the subject (the last of which took place in March 2002).17 He also repeated the UK's support for the creation of a Middle East zone free from weapons of mass destruction.18

On the same theme, when asked about the MoD's latest estimate of those states known or believed to be pursuing WMD programmes, Geoff Hoon expressed real concern at "persistent reports" that Iran, the DPRK, Libya and Syria are pursuing programmes to develop WMD and the means for their delivery. This refusal to associate the MoD directly with a threat assessment of these countries' programmes may reflect a post-Iraq nervousness about getting such assessments wrong.19

A written question from Conservative MP, Andrew Rosindell, asked the Foreign Office what steps the Government was taking to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons-related technology. The FCO Minister, Denis MacShane, replied that all licences for the export from the UK of nuclear technology with possible weapons-related application are rigorously scrutinised. Within the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) the UK chairs the Licensing and Enforcement Experts Meeting where customs and other enforcement officials exchange information and intelligence relating to procurement methods, and discuss case studies on interdiction. The UK also provides technical experts who revise the lists of controlled goods to ensure that the NSG keeps pace with developments in technology, weapons systems and procurement methods. Within the NSG and other export control regimes the UK supports outreach activities, in the form of bilateral talks and awareness raising seminars, which play a key role in the UK's efforts to promote and support the implementation of responsible export controls around the world. In addition, joint teams of officials from the FCO, DTI, MOD and HM Customs and Excise conduct dedicated export control bilateral meetings to address the practical issues surrounding the implementation of export licensing and enforcement systems.20

UK Nuclear Weapons and Policy

In relation to the UK's own substantial WMD capability, the Defence Secretary told the House of Commons it was important for Britain to retain a nuclear capability while it fulfils an important function, but there had been no significant adjustments in that policy.21

The Shadow Defence spokesperson, Bernard Jenkin, pointedly avoided any exploration of the potentially counter-productive repercussions of other states seeking to acquire influence through similar means when he put forward the Conservative Party's justification for the UK's continued retention of nuclear weapons. Although it might appear to be outdated in the current threat environment, he said, if the UK failed to maintain the deterrent, it would invite such threats to return and reduce the UK's influence in the world.22

Jenkin further raised the question of a follow-on for the Trident submarine-based nuclear weapons system, claiming that during a visit to the BAE Systems submarine yard the previous week he had been informed that the time was fast approaching when planning, design and assessment work on the successor to Trident must begin. That is because it must be ready in time to replace the current submarines, which will be retired in 2020. Perhaps wisely, given the enormous political controversy that would inevitably be triggered within his own Party, the Defence Secretary avoided being drawn into a debate about when such decisions might have to be made.

The Defence Secretary was pressed, however, by his counterpart in the Liberal Democrat Party, Paul Keetch, who called for more transparency regarding the level of UK nuclear weapons capability. Keetch challenged Hoon to be more precise than the statement announced in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review that the UK would now have "fewer than 200 operationally available warheads"? Hoon withheld the information, replying that "it would not be in the interests of national security to be more precise than this". Nor would he reveal the approximate yield of the warheads on the UK's Trident missiles. Instead, he sought to reassure the Liberal Democrats that the Government would "for as long as Britain has nuclear forces, ensure that we have a robust capability at the Atomic Weapons Establishment to underwrite the safety and reliability of our nuclear warheads, without recourse to nuclear weapon test explosions or any other nuclear explosion. This approach is consistent with our continued support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty".23 But the Defence Secretary's answers were less reassuring in relation to the possible use of nuclear weapons. First, in respect of the continued purpose of the deployment of US air-launched, tactical nuclear weapons on UK soil, Hoon gave the standard response that they provide "an essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the alliance".

This justification may have had some credibility during the Cold War when Europe was keen to link the US to its defence against the numerically superior Warsaw Pact forces, but what is their purpose now that there is no strategic threat across the Iron Curtain? The US nuclear posture now contemplates the pre-emptive use of tactical nuclear weapons against 'rogue' states and their WMD capabilities. There is growing concern that US nuclear weapons in the UK (and elsewhere in Europe in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Greece) will assume this new purpose. At the very least the purpose of these weapons' continued deployments should be subject to thorough public debate. Bland statements that they constitute an essential transatlantic link are insufficient. Nor is it acceptable for the UK Government to refuse to tell its people how many tactical US nuclear weapons are deployed on sovereign UK territory, as the Defence Secretary did in a written parliamentary answer in October.24

Nuclear Use Doctrine

Asked to clarify if the UK Government reserved the right to be the first to use weapons of mass destruction in war, Hoon replied: "...We maintain only a minimum nuclear deterrent, the purpose of which is to prevent war rather than fight it. As the Government has made clear on many occasions, we would be prepared to use nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances of self-defence. As our overall strategy is to ensure uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor about the exact nature of our response, and thus to maintain effective deterrence, we do not define the exact circumstances under which we would be prepared to use nuclear weapons. We would not use our weapons, whether conventional or nuclear, contrary to international law."25

In accordance with this doctrine, the UK would be prepared to use its nuclear weapons first. Inconsistent with the UK's security assurances to NPT parties enshrined in UNSC 984 (1995), this expression of doctrine would also appear consistent with retaining the option to use nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive attack against another state's WMD capability, if this was judged to represent a current and serious threat. Her Majesty's Government, however, maintains that this does not represent any change in UK nuclear doctrine.

It is true that the UK has traditionally reserved the right to use nuclear weapons first, but that had always been in the context of having first been attacked - or perhaps also been on the point of being attacked - by the numerically superior forces of the Warsaw Pact. What worries some commentators now is that UK doctrine could justify the early use of nuclear weapons on the basis of an intelligence assessment of what a 'rogue' state is believed to have hidden in an underground bunker.


The tensions within the UK's WMD policy are building. Whilst the need to prevent others from acquiring or developing WMD becomes even more important, the UK appears to be drawing closer to a more aggressive US counter-proliferation strategy, which, in turn, seeks to promote greater utility and usability for its own nuclear forces.

For over thirty years the UK tried hard to square the circle of nuclear weapon possession with its nonproliferation objectives, relying largely on its interpretation of the NPT, which commits the UK to eliminating its nuclear weapons, albeit without a timetable. In theory at least this allowed for the hope that as nonproliferation succeeded so the salience of nuclear deterrence doctrine would whither.

This illusion is being shattered by the Bush Administration's policies that undermine the nonproliferation regimes' powers to provide security from WMD threats, while providing for coercive disarmament to be enforced on certain 'rogue' states. Moreover, if necessary, the neoconservatives appear keen to employ their own nuclear weapons as part of the policies of counterproliferation and enforcement.

The UK Government still believes in multilateralism but acknowledges that the present regime has failings that urgently need to be addressed. It has also made a strategic judgement that maintaining a close relationship with the US, despite its reservations about aspects of its foreign policy, is more important than risking damaging that relationship through airing those reservations more strongly and publicly. As the junior military partner to the US it is also being drawn into the requirements of the new military doctrine of pre-emption. To what extent it is prepared to travel down that road in respect of its own nuclear forces is a question that looms ever nearer.


1. See Stephen Pullinger, www.acronym.org.uk/Disarmament Diplomacy/dd73/73news03.htm, Disarmament Diplomacy No.73, October-November 2003.

2. Rt. Hon. Tony Blair, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 10 Sept 2003, Column 321.

3. Edward Leigh, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 22 Oct 2003, Column 665.

4. Rt. Hon. Kenneth Clarke, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 22 Oct 2003, Column 692.

5. Rt. Hon. Peter Lilley, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 22 Oct 2003, Column 710.

6. Ibid, Column 711

7. Rt. Hon. Tony Blair, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 17 Sept 2003, Column 852/3.

8. Rt. Hon. Jack Straw, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 22 Oct 2003, Column 677.

9. Ibid.

10. Rt. Hon. Menzies Campbell, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 22 Oct 2003, Column 687.

11. Rt. Hon. Tony Blair, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 27 Oct 2003, Column 50W.

12. Rt. Hon. Geoff Hoon, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 16 Oct 2003, Column 276/7.

13. Malcolm Savidge, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 16 Oct 2003, Column 325.

14. Ibid., Column 326.

15. Rt. Hon. Jack Straw, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 5 Nov 2003, Column 662W.

16. Rt. Hon. Jack Straw, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 23 Oct 2003, Column 713/4W.

17. Rt. Hon. Jack Straw, MP, op. cit., Column 662W.

18. Rt. Hon. Jack Straw, MP, op. cit., Column 714W.

19. Rt. Hon. Geoff Hoon, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 30 Oct 2003, Column 320W.

20. Denis MacShane, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 13 Nov 2003, Column 450W.

21. Bernard Jenkin, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 16 Oct 2003, Column 275.

22. Ibid., Column 284.

23. Rt. Hon. Geoff Hoon, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 3 Nov 2003, Column 427W.

24. Rt. Hon. Geoff Hoon, MP, House of Commons, Official Report, 27 Oct 2003, Column 8W.

25. Ibid., Column 10W.

Stephen Pullinger

Back to the top of page

© 2003 The Acronym Institute.