Members call for Defence and Disarmament Working Group

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The Federal Policy Committee will soon be meeting to discuss the establishment of new policy working groups. A petition has been submitted by 104 party members calling for the setting up of a working group on Defence and Disarmament issues.

Here is what it says:

We urge the FPC to recognise that since the party Conference last discussed issues related to nuclear weapons in 2017 the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been ratified and come into force. In addition, the UK Government is thought to have broken the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by deciding to increase the number of Trident warheads on its nuclear submarines (see Early Day Motion jointly sponsored by Wera Hobhouse MP). We consider that in the light of these events, changes in governments worldwide, IT developments, and the Covid pandemic, the establishment of a party policy working group to consider developing new and responsive policy on defence and disarmament issues is now urgently required. We further believe that the findings of such a working group should be presented to party Conference at the earliest possible opportunity.       

The statement at Spring Conference by our Defence spokesperson in the Lords, Julie Smith, condemning the increase in the number of Trident warheads was welcome. It is now time, however, for all members of the party to be afforded the opportunity to review and update policy on nuclear weapons.

* Kevin White is Chair of LibDems Against Trident. He was a member of the last LibDem working group on nuclear weapons and was a member of the pre-merger Liberal Party's Defence and Disarmament Panel

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16 Comments

  • …the UK Government is thought to have broken the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by deciding to increase the number of Trident warheads on its nuclear submarines…

    The proposed increase is in the current stockpile ceiling of 225 warheads to 260. The actual number is likely to be less. It may be a temporary increase for operational reasons to accommodate the replacement of the ageing W76 Holbrook warheads with the new W93 design. There is usually just one boat at sea so only a small proportion of these warheads are deployed at any given time.

  • Laurence Cox 3rd Jun '21 - 4:12pm

    I was at the Harrogate Spring conference in 2007 and voted for the Lib Dems for Peace & Security motion to oppose Trident renewal (which was only defeated by 40 votes out of 868). I would caution anyone against thinking that ending Trident would yield a ‘peace dividend’; it is likely that we need to spend much more on our defence than we do at present. Kevin White alludes to new non-nuclear threats; I was in conversation with a professional systems risk analyst a few weeks ago and he was quite definite that Russia or China have the capability, for example, to take down the National Grid; as Russia demonstrated on a smaller scale in Ukraine in 2015. There is also increasing uncertainty about the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as no intermediate host between bat and man has been found (this posting from the normally-reputable Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is one example: https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/the-origin-of-covid-did-people-or-nature-open-pandoras-box-at-wuhan/). I would still incline towards a natural cause, but my point is that we have to think about defence in much wider terms than guns and bullets; we need to think about the existential risks to the UK and its people.

    In my opinion, we do need a review of our Party’s defence policy, but it has to go much wider than just the nuclear deterrent.

  • Brad Barrows 3rd Jun '21 - 4:21pm

    At a time when Labour is trying to move closer to a ‘Conservative-lite’ position that worked for Tony Blair, there is an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to adopt radical policies that Labour is scared to embrace. Among these, nuclear disarmament. The SNP has proved that it is perfectly possible for a political party to stand against nuclear weapons and still be supported at the ballot box.

  • Paul Barker 3rd Jun '21 - 4:56pm

    No-one can object to setting up a working group, I would have thought that our poilicy already implied that the number of Nuclear Warheads should be kept to the minimum required to operate the system as it is – why should we keep more Warheads than the Submarines can actually carry ? Making that reduction explicit would be fine too, in fact reducing the number of Warheads to say 22 instead of 220 would be pretty uncontraversial – Trident is meant to be a deterrent not a fighting weapon. Threatening to shoot someone a hundred times is no more effective than threatening to shoot them once.
    Personally I am still opposed to scrapping Trident except as part of a wider deal.

  • Laurence Cox 3rd Jun '21 - 5:31pm

    You can also watch the virtual programme “The UK’s new nuclear posture: What it means for the global nuclear order” which is on the Bulletin web site: https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/watch-now-the-uks-new-nuclear-posture-what-it-means-for-the-global-nuclear-order/

  • If you guys are serious about ever getting into power forget about this. Even hinting/talking about reducing the UK’s nuclear capability will lose you votes. This is one of the main reasons the Tories keep winning and Labour only won under Tony Blair. Saying you will invest more into Defence (including nuclear) and Law and Order is the way to go.

  • Norman Dombey advised Paddy Ashdown on nuclear matters during the 1980s. He has an informative piece in the London Review of Books https://blog.lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/february/neither-british-nor-independent-and-no-deterrent that concludes:
    “Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is neither British nor independent. Both its missiles and its warheads are dependent on the US and of US design. Nor is it a deterrent. Britain’s nuclear weapons did not deter Turkey from invading Cyprus in 1974, even though the UK was a guarantor by treaty of Cyprus’s independence; nor did they stop Argentina invading the Falklands in 1982. They didn’t deter the US from invading Grenada in 1983, even though Grenada was a member of the Commonwealth. More recently, they did not deter China from violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong or the EU from refusing to allow British shellfish to be imported. I cannot think of one instance in the sixty years since Nassau when our nuclear deterrent has deterred anyone from doing anything.”

  • Joe Bourke 3rd Jun ’21 – 11:11pm:
    Norman Dombey advised Paddy Ashdown on nuclear matters during the 1980s. He has an informative piece in the London Review of Books

    It’s a remarkably uninformed opinion piece.

    Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is neither British nor independent.

    The phrase “independent nuclear detterent” means that it is operationally independent. Which it is.

    ‘Who controls Trident? A brief look at the operation of Britain’s nuclear weapons’:
    https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/controls-trident-brief-look-operation-britains-nuclear-weapons/

    In summary, the UK retains full operational control, to the extent that the US could not stop the UK from using the system, even against the United States.

    Britain’s nuclear weapons did not deter…

    No sane person would consider, even remotely, that nuclear weapons would be used in any of the examples cited. It would be completely disproportionate.

    ‘The UK’s nuclear deterrent: what you need to know’:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-nuclear-deterrence-factsheet/uk-nuclear-deterrence-what-you-need-to-know

    It is wrong to say that the UK’s nuclear deterrent is never used. The reality is that it protects us every hour of every day. By providing a credible and effective response option to extreme aggression, our nuclear deterrent reduces the likelihood of such an attack taking place.
    […]

    We are deliberately ambiguous about precisely when, how, and at what scale we would use our weapons. This ensures the deterrent’s effectiveness is not undermined and complicates the calculations of a potential aggressor.

    The UK’s nuclear deterrent is operationally independent. Only the Prime Minister can authorise the use of our nuclear weapons even if deployed as part of a NATO response. We would consider using our nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO allies.
    […]

    Many people hold understandably strong views about nuclear weapons, and the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. However, abandoning our deterrent unilaterally would not lead others to do the same. Instead, it would undermine our security and that of our NATO allies. A world where the UK’s potential adversaries opposition have nuclear weapons and the UK (and NATO) does not, is not a world in which you and your family are safer.

  • Paul Barker 3rd Jun ’21 – 4:56pm:
    …why should we keep more Warheads than the Submarines can actually carry ?

    The inventory needs to be rotated through AWE Burghfield for servicing and eventual replacement. There also needs to be enough warheads to equip four boats even though only one is deployed at once as it is not practical to swap warheads (or missiles) from one boat to another.

  • Laurence Cox 4th Jun '21 - 12:31pm

    @Jeff

    There is the suggestion which was made by Hans Kristensen in the programme I linked to above that the increase in number of warheads is to take their number from 4 to 5 per missile (there is one wahead to each MIRV) and is a result of Russia’s improved anti-missile defence (the S-500) that is due to be delivered beginning this year. Major nuclear powers, like USA or Russia, have enough warheads (5,800 and 6,375) to overpower defences, but the numbers for the other countries are marginal (China 320, France 290, UK 215 before this increase), if defences continue to improve.

  • Kevin White 4th Jun '21 - 5:35pm

    Lord McDonald, seen as a cautious civil servant, told the House of Lords: “I understand that a continuous at-sea deterrent needs us to be able to deploy two boats from time to time. The new ceiling allows both boats to be fully armed. But that does not increase deterrence. It is expensive and incompatible with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

  • Laurence Cox 4th Jun ’21 – 12:31pm:
    There is the suggestion which was made by Hans Kristensen in the programme I linked to above that the increase in number of warheads is to take their number from 4 to 5 per missile (there is one wahead to each MIRV) and is a result of Russia’s improved anti-missile defence…

    The government are not saying…

    ‘The 2021 Integrated Review: nuclear frequently asked questions’ [April 2021]:
    https://www.gov.uk/guidance/the-2021-integrated-review-nuclear-frequently-asked-questions

    9: Is this change as a result of Russian developments in Ballistic Missile Defence?

    Ballistic Missile Defence is just one factor that we consider. We conduct a thorough assessment of the decision-making processes of future potential aggressors as well as their defensive capabilities. We will not comment on the exact elements of our calculations but it is true that in order to remain credible, our deterrent must be able to defeat defensive systems that potential adversaries may deploy. We are confident that this will remain the case.

    Kevin White 4th Jun ’21 – 5:35pm:
    It is expensive and incompatible with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

    1: Is it true that the UK’s increase in the stockpile ceiling is illegal?

    No. The UK’s actions are fully consistent with our international legal obligations, including those under Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 1968 (NPT).

  • Steve Trevethan 4th Jun '21 - 9:10pm

    Might the attached Politico article “How Washington owns the U.K.’s nukes” be relevant to this discussion?
    https://www.politico.eu/article/uk-trident-nuclear-program/

  • Laurence Cox 5th Jun '21 - 11:19pm

    @Steve Trevethan
    No, it is inaccurate and misleading. You can find more accurate information on Wikipedia. See for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanguard-class_submarine

  • Steve Trevethan 6th Jun '21 - 10:02am

    Might it also be relevant to consider what could be called the associated effects of our special nuclear relationship with the USA?
    Might our “nuclear relationship” also involve our supporting, not least militarily, the USA in its attacks on countries it apparently chooses to help by smashing them up?
    Might Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya be examples?
    https://theecologist.org/2016/feb/26/trident-uks-route-nuclear-annihilation

  • John Barrett 8th Jun '21 - 4:35pm

    Laurence Cox – “I was at the Harrogate Spring conference in 2007 and voted for the Lib Dems for Peace & Security motion to oppose Trident renewal (which was only defeated by 40 votes out of 868). ”

    As someone who spoke in the debate and ended on the losing side, it looked like the motion to oppose Trident renewal was heading for victory, when the new party leader, Ming Campbell was called to speak in favour of Trident renewal, which then left the conference delegates having to choose between supporting the new party leader, or deal with all the consequences of him losing in a major debate. The close result indicates that his intervention probably managed to swing the final vote.

    To those who say a party will not win votes if it opposes nuclear arms, as Brad Barrows has already pointed out “The SNP has proved that it is perfectly possible for a political party to stand against nuclear weapons and still be supported at the ballot box.”

    Our defence spending priorities and our policies are now determined by threats from a bygone era. Aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons are no defence against cyber attacks and terrorists.

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