CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

UK DEFENCE SPENDING & THE NUCLEAR DETERRENT - 24 June 2021

UK DEFENCE SPENDING & THE NUCLEAR DETERRENT - 24 June 2021

[Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton): Order. I have to inform the House of a correction to the result of the deferred Division held yesterday on the motion on the conference, November and Christmas Adjournments. The number of Members voting Aye was 568, not 567. The number of Members voting No remains three. There is no change to the outcome of the Division.]

Dr Julian Lewis: Oh, Madam Deputy Speaker, the disparity in that vote is almost as great as in the results when we voted to renew the nuclear deterrent – where we had very large majorities – on a cross-party basis, in agreement with that step. On a generous interpretation of the terms of this debate, and if I am not prevented by the Chair, I hope to say a little more about one aspect of the nuclear deterrent under the scope of subjects of a defence nature on which we are going to spend a considerable amount of money.

However, let me start by expressing some sympathy with Defence Ministers, because they have fought long, hard and valiantly to get a significant increase, in real terms, in the defence budget, and they have done that and deserve credit for it. The problem with which they have to contend is that, set in the context of defence expenditure over a very long period, defence still remains far too far down – way down – the scale of our national priorities.

Not for the first time, I should like to paint this picture, with the aid of a prop that I am not allowed to use but which I am, I trust, allowed to consult. It shows the falling percentage of GDP spent on defence over a very long period and the rising percentage of GDP spent on three other costly Departments: those dealing with education, health and welfare. I paint this picture just to give people the idea of the long-term trend. In the mid-1950s, an age ago, we were spending 7% of GDP on defence. In 1963, the falling graph on defence crosses over the rising graph on welfare and benefits, at 6%. We now spend six times on welfare and benefits what we spend on defence, but then of course 1963 was also a very long time ago. In the mid-1980s, which is not such a long time ago, we were still spending similar sums on education, on health and on defence. We were then investing roughly 5% of GDP in each, but now we spend two and a half times as much on education and nearly four times as much on health as we spend on defence. The mid-1980s was the last time until recently that we faced a threat from both a strongly assertive Russia and a major terrorist campaign. Then, it was Irish republicanism; now, it is Islamist fundamentalism.

I said that I wanted to talk about one area of defence spending because it had attracted attention from the references to it in the integrated review, and I see to my great pleasure that the next speaker on the list is the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). I should be very surprised indeed if he did not have certain observations to make about the change in the maximum number of warheads that it is envisaged might be held in stockpile for the future nuclear deterrent.

Ever since NATO’s September 2014 Wales summit, which restated its 2% guideline for defence spending as a proportion of gross domestic product, it has become necessary tediously to repeat that that figure is a floor, not a ceiling. For example, although it is sometimes proudly proclaimed that we meet the NATO guideline, historically, as I have shown, we used to spend way above that. Even as late as the mid-1990s, half a dozen years after the fall of the Berlin wall, we were not spending 2.1% or what is now going to be 2.2% of GDP on defence; we were spending fully 3% of GDP on defence. It was the view of the previous Defence Committee, and I understand that it is still the view of the Chairman of the present Defence Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), that 3% would be a realistic and sensible target for a country with our worldwide interests to seek to hit.

Mr Ellwood indicated assent.

Dr Lewis: I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend nodding his assent. Therefore, when we talk about the 2% guideline, we should bear in mind that it is not a ceiling nor a target; it is merely a floor or a minimum. Now we face a similar task regarding the increase in the cap on the size of our nuclear stockpile recently announced in the integrated review. That should be described as a ceiling, not a floor. In other words, it is a maximum and not a target for the number of warheads we will retain.

The integrated review states:

“In 2010 the Government stated an intent to reduce our overall nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling from not more than 225 to not more than 180 by the mid-2020s. However, in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats, this is no longer possible, and the UK will move to an overall nuclear weapon stockpile of no more than 260 warheads.”

Predictably, this is being denounced as a more than 40% increase in the stockpile, on the basis that increasing a total of 180 to 260 would be an uplift of 44.4%. However, the cancellation of a reduction that has not yet been completed – if indeed it ever began – means that, at most, the total might rise from the previously declared maximum of 225 to a new maximum of 260. Were those the actual present and future totals, the increase would be only about 15.5%, a perfectly reasonable increment to ensure that advances in anti-ballistic missile technology over the 40-plus years of our next generation of Trident warheads cannot undermine our policy of minimum strategic deterrence.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald: The right hon. Gentleman does not have to wait for the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). He knows that we disagree on this – he mentioned at the start of his speech the last vote on the nuclear deterrent, and I seem to recall that we were in agreement that there should be a vote on the nuclear deterrent. However, when the integrated review was published – he has just mentioned the change in threat and doctrines as a reason for the expansion of the new nuclear policy – it was said that this was somehow to do with things such as cyber-threats, so which computer are we aiming these nuclear weapons at? Does he agree that to say that we would use nuclear weapons in response to a cyber-attack or threat is wholly absurd?

Dr Lewis: If the hon. Gentleman, whom I regard as a friend, waits for the next part of my analysis, I hope that all will become clear. However, it is absolutely the case that nuclear weapons, as a deterrent, do not deter every sort of threat that could be ranged against us. If they did, we could abolish all the other armed forces. The truth of the matter is that they deter other weapons of mass destruction. Unless there were a development in the cyber world that could inflict destruction on a mass level comparable with a nuclear exchange, it is entirely incredible to think that nuclear weapons would be used in retaliation to an attack of that sort. I hope that satisfies him on the main point that he was making.

Minimum deterrence relies on the fact that possession of a last-resort strategic nuclear system that can be guaranteed to inflict unacceptable and unavoidable devastation in response to nuclear aggression does not require any ability to match the aggressor missile for missile or warhead for warhead. Nuclear superpowers have huge overkill capabilities that offer zero extra protection against countries with much smaller weapons of mass destruction arsenals, as long as the latter can retaliate with an unstoppable and unbearable counter-strike against any nuclear aggressor who is seeking to wipe them out. Overkill capabilities may have symbolic political value, but in the dread event of a nuclear exchange, all they can do, as was famously said, is to “make the rubble bounce”.

There may exist more up-to-date estimates, but the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s inventory totals for world nuclear stockpiles, published at the beginning of last year, are sufficiently instructive. China, France and the UK, with estimated totals of 320, 290 and 215 respectively, fall into the camp of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence. By contrast, the estimated totals of 5,800 for the United States and 6,375 for Russia go way beyond anything needed to pursue such a policy. The notion that, at some stage in the future, the United Kingdom might end up with 35 more warheads than its previously declared theoretical maximum does not change the fact that we are currently, and shall probably remain, fifth out of five in the size of the nuclear stockpiles held by the permanent member states of the UN Security Council. So why have the Government chosen to take the controversial step of cancelling the reduction in the ceiling of our warhead total from 225 to 180 and raising it to a new ceiling of 260 instead?

Stewart Malcolm McDonald: Can I answer?

Dr Lewis: I was just going to say that this is the analysis that the hon. Gentleman was waiting for, but if he really wishes to come in, he can.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald: It is a shame that the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), is no longer here, but I was with him when he said that it is to cover for the fact that we are cutting the Army by 10,000 as a sweetener to the Americans. That is what it is.

Dr Lewis: Let us see if the hon. Gentleman was right in anticipating what I have to say.

In the absence, at present at any rate, of any briefing on the issue, classified or otherwise, from my parliamentary colleagues on the Defence ministerial team, here are the four possible explanations that occur to me. Explanation 1 – most probably, as already stated – is that it is an insurance policy to prevent a potential aggressor from calculating that advances in anti-ballistic missile systems have reduced our retaliatory capability to a point where our response to an attack becomes bearable or even avoidable. Explanation 2 – quite probably – is that it is to give more headroom for the time, in the late 2030s or early 2040s, when we are due to exchange our current stockpile of warheads for next-generation nuclear warheads, while at the same time preventing disruption of our continuous at-sea deterrent patrols. Explanation 3 –  possibly – is that it is to send a signal internationally that the UK is determined to keep nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them and remains committed to doing whatever is required to maintain their invulnerability. And – here it comes – explanation 4, conceivably, is that it is also tailored for a domestic audience worried about cuts in the size of the Army, in order to offer reassurance, or at least to divert some attention from those reductions.

What seems most unlikely is an intention to invest in additional warheads of the existing design. We are certainly cancelling their reduction from a theoretical maximum of 225 to one of only 180 for any or all of the four reasons listed, particularly the first explanation. Raising the maximum from 225 to 260 to provide extra headroom for the eventual transition from current warheads to their replacements is a sensible explanation, though not a conclusive one, given that the changeover is not due to happen for well over a decade.

Despite the imposition of a dedicated supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as the Leader of the Opposition in 2015, hon. and right hon. Labour Members ensured that their party’s policy remained multilateralist. Previously, on 14 March 2007, Parliament had voted by 409 to 161 in favour of proceeding with the initial gate for renewal of the Trident submarine fleet. Even that huge majority was eclipsed on 18 July 2016, when it rose to 355 after MPs voted for the decisive main gate stage to proceed by 472 to only 117.

There is nothing in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that requires any country already in possession of a recognised nuclear arsenal to get rid of it and to achieve a nuclear-free world prior to a state of grace when general and complete conventional disarmament – also referred to in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but seldom cited by those who quote it selectively – can be guaranteed. There is a very good reason for this, because if we were to abandon all nuclear weapons in an unreformed world, that would be a recipe for disaster. In a conventional war taking place in a nuclear-free world, the former nuclear powers would immediately race to reacquire the bomb. The first to succeed would then use its monopoly, as occurred in 1945. If the Treaty’s vision of general and complete conventional disarmament ever becomes reality, then nuclear weapons can indeed also safely be declared redundant; but, until that day dawns, the United Kingdom is perfectly capable of changing the size of its warhead stockpile without breaching the Non-Proliferation Treaty in order to maintain indefinitely the credibility of its strategic minimum deterrence policy.

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[The Minister for the Armed Forces (James Heappey), Summing-up:  ... My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East gave us a tour de force on the importance of maintaining our nuclear deterrent. I started today at 3 am in the former bunker in Corsham, where constituents of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and many other of his countrymen were fighting their way through the mine system as part of their final exercise. The importance of that deterrent was made vividly clear to me, as was the tremendous warrior spirit of the Ulster fighter. My right hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot say which if any of the first three hypotheses he offered are the right ones for changing our stockpile, but I can absolutely confirm, as he suspected, that the fourth of his hypotheses is not the case. ... ]