The UK’s Nuclear Deterrent 10 April 2019
The debate on the UK’s nuclear deterrent was very long. Consequently a number of contributions not directly related to the subject have been omitted. The opening speech by Gavin Williamson (since sacked) and the response by Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith, are published below.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Gavin Williamson) I beg to move, That this House has considered the 50th anniversary of the continuous at sea deterrent.
Half a century ago, HMS Resolution glided into the Clyde and sailed into the history books. That was the start of our longest sustained military operation—Operation Relentless—and the beginning of our continuous at-sea deterrent. Since then, there has always been a Royal Navy ballistic missile submarine at sea protecting our nation, and thousands of submariners have followed in the wake of Resolution’s crew conducting vital work, unseen and undetected, every minute of every day. Today it is for the House to pay tribute to those brave men and women, past and present, who have helped to make this operation so successful.
We already honour our submariners with a deterrent patrol pin—often known as the bomber pin—giving recognition to their enormous efforts, but we want to go further still. Consequently, we are going to ensure that those who complete 10 patrols will now be recognised with the new silver bomber pin. Future bomber pins will be made from metal taken from HMS Resolution, linking today’s submariners with their forefathers and emphasising the longevity and the significance of the 50-year mission. Even as we pay tribute to the submariners, it is equally important that we think of their families, too—those who often have to go for months on end without hearing from their loved ones. We must also pay tribute to the thousands of industry experts who have played a vital role in this national endeavour.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) I wonder how the Secretary of State thinks we can possibly lecture other countries about not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. What moral high ground do we have to do that if we ourselves not only possess them but are upgrading them? Does he really think the world would be a safer place if every country had nuclear weapons, and if that is not the case, how on earth do we justify what we are doing?
Gavin Williamson I firmly believe that the world is a safer place because we have a nuclear deterrent, and because of the responsible way that it is deployed.
Caroline Lucas But would the world be safer if all countries had them?
Gavin Williamson The hon. Lady and I will probably always find room for disagreement on this. I will come on to the issue of deterrence later. I want to make progress, because it would be remiss of me not to mention the town of Barrow-in-Furness and give our thanks to the people of Barrow, who have crafted these giants of the deep and continue to do so, ensuring that we have the right technology and the right vessels to deliver our nuclear deterrent. It is important to understand the remarkable engineering that goes into these remarkably sophisticated submarines, whose level of sophistication matches that of a spacecraft. It is only fitting that this debate marks the start of a series of events designed to commemorate such dedicated and continuous service not only from the submariners, but from the industry and the communities that have supported the deterrent.
Mr Paul Sweeney (Glasgow North East) (Lab/Co-op) The Secretary of State makes an important point about the industrial contribution that our shipbuilding industry makes; I have worked for the company that builds our nation’s submarines and naval ships, so I am all too aware of how important that impact is. However, the construction of these ships and submarines is dependent on in-year financing, which really disrupts the ability to build the infrastructure that will serve these ships throughout their life cycle. How are we going to change the way in which ships are financed by the Treasury to ensure that we give them proper project financing, so that the companies involved can build the world-class infrastructure needed to build submarines and ships for the future?
Gavin Williamson I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will deal with it and then make some progress, because there is a lot of interest in the House and many hon. Members want to speak. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and it is why the Government have set aside £31 billion to deliver the Dreadnought programme and ensure that we have continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence. We have also built in a contingency, because we are very conscious that we want to provide security confidence that the programme will deliver within budget and on time.
It is important that we pay our thanks to those who have served on the submarines, to families, and to the whole industry. Next month there will be the Westminster Abbey service recognising the commitment of our submariners. In July there will be a parade at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, and at the end of the November there will be a special memorial commemoration at Edinburgh Castle. However, today’s debate is important because it gives us the opportunity to underline why the deterrent still matters so much to the United Kingdom, why it remains very much at the heart of our national security policy, and why it has been one of the rare issues to command popular support across both sides of the House. It is an important point to make that the continuous at-sea deterrent has been supported by both Conservative and Labour Governments continuously over the last few decades; I certainly hope that it will be for many decades into the future.
The doubters who persist in believing that the deterrent is simply a cold war relic need to be reminded of three salient points. First and foremost, the nuclear dangers have not gone away; on the contrary, the geopolitical situation is more unstable than ever before. We are facing challenges that are growing in scale, complexity and diversity. Russia is rebuilding its nuclear arsenal. It has breached the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty and, in Europe, has now deployed new nuclear-capable missile systems to target and threaten the West. It also continues to develop and adapt its doctrine to give primacy to nuclear weapons. North Korea is the only state to have detonated a nuclear weapon in the 21st century. Despite positive dialogue, its weapons remain intact. We hope it will return to compliance with its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. The point is that both Russia and North Korea have shown their willingness to rattle the nuclear sabre in the past.
There are no indications that those dangers will disappear any time soon, so we cannot relax our guard. While there is the risk of other states developing weapons, we must have a credible response to that threat. Our independent nuclear deterrent—our nuclear weapons posture—gives us defences against such actions. It is our ultimate insurance policy. It protects us every day from the most extreme threats to our national security and our way of life. Beyond that, it gives future generations greater strategic options and the power to protect themselves into the 2060s and beyond, whatever may lie round the corner.
As was recognised at last year’s NATO summit in Brussels, the UK’s nuclear deterrent provides a critical contribution to our alliance. Since 1962, the UK has assigned all our nuclear forces to NATO’s defence. That 50-year commitment to the defence and security of every member of that great alliance is as strong today as it has ever been in the past. All member states benefit from that capability, which gives the alliance another centre of decision making to complicate the calculations of our adversaries.
In fact, many allies signed the non-proliferation treaty in the late 1960s safe in knowledge they would be covered by the nuclear umbrella that the United Kingdom provides for them. Those who argue that we should disarm should consider whether such a move would actually make nuclear proliferation more, rather than less, likely. We cannot blame others, such as the United States, for questioning why they should be paying the price for protecting us from nuclear threats.
Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con) My constituency is the home of GCHQ, which has unprecedented and unparalleled security co-operation and intelligence sharing with the United States. Does the Secretary of State agree that the UK’s commitment to the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent is one of the foundation stones of that strong relationship, which keeps our people safe?
Gavin Williamson My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will touch on later. Our nuclear deterrent is a cornerstone of that long and enduring relationship. The United States does not have such a relationship with another country anywhere on this Earth. That close collaboration makes us and our allies safer.
The extent to which our deterrent underpins our special relationship with the United States must never be underplayed. We should be proud of the fact we are one of the few nations with both strategic nuclear and conventional carrier capabilities. We should be proud that those strengths give the United Kingdom influence not just in NATO but across the world, giving us the capability to influence events in our interest and stand up for our values and the United Kingdom.
My third point is that there are simply no credible alternatives to the submarine-based deterrent. Some claim that there are cheaper and more effective ways of providing a similar effect to the Trident system, but we have been down that road many times before. Successive studies by both Labour and Conservative Administrations have shown that there are no other alternatives. Most recently, the Trident alternatives review of 2013 found that submarines are less vulnerable to attack than silos or aircraft and can maintain a continuous posture in a way that aircraft and land-based alternatives cannot. Their missiles have greater range and capability than other alternative delivery systems. Overall, the review concluded that a minimum, credible, assured and independent deterrent requires nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles.
Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP) I struggle to see the logic in arguing for multilateral disarmament while simultaneously rearming unilaterally. My question to the Secretary of State is this: how many nuclear submarines have been successfully decommissioned since 1980? The answer is none, isn’t it?
Gavin Williamson We are intending to see the first decommissioning of submarines over the coming year. That important issue needs to be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) have been looking at it and have made some very important contributions. It is an issue that the Ministry of Defence takes very seriously. I was hoping—this was obviously very naive of me—that the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) was going to talk about Scotland’s pride at being the home of our submarine forces, about the economic benefit that our continuous at-sea nuclear benefit delivers Scotland, about the fact that 6,800 people are employed at Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Clyde, and about the fact that that will increase to 8,500. It is disappointing that he could not talk with a bit of pride about the service personnel who contribute so much. This is about saying, “Thank you”, to the submariners who have continuously put their lives at risk and done so much for our nation to keep us safe. I hope that all Members in this House, regardless of their view about the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, will have the courtesy to pay tribute to those brave men and women. We cannot wish away the rise of the atomic bomb, especially given that there are some 14,500 nuclear weapons on this Earth. That is not to say we have given up our determination to create a nuclear-free world. On the contrary, we have been at the forefront of arms reduction. Since the height of the cold war, the United Kingdom has reduced our forces by more than 50%. We have delivered on our commitment to reduce the number of warheads carried by our Vanguard submarines from 48 to 40, and we have decreased the number of operationally available warheads to no more than 120.
We remain committed to reducing our stockpile to no more than 180 warheads by the mid-2020s, but the reality is that other nations have not taken the hint from the lead that the United Kingdom has shown. Even as we have cut back, others are creating new systems to get around treaty obligations or are simply ignoring the commitments that they have made. I have already spoken about Russia’s breach of the INF treaty. The truth is that the only way to create the global security conditions necessary for nuclear disarmament is by working multilaterally. Our commitment to the deterrent is cast-iron.
We are spending around £4 billion every year to ensure the ultimate guarantee of our safety for the next 50 years, not least by investing in the next generation of ballistic missile submarines – the Dreadnought class. We have made significant progress. We have already named three of the state-of-the-art submarines—Dreadnought, Valiant and Warspite. Construction has already started in Barrow on HMS Dreadnought. Those names recall some of the greatest ships of our naval history. We are investing millions of pounds in state-of-the-art facilities and complex nuclear propulsion systems, and we are ensuring every day counts by utilising our Dreadnought contingency, with access to up to £1 billion, to fund more in the early years to drive out cost and risk later in the programme.
This is a national endeavour. We often talk, rightly, about those who are serving in the Royal Navy, but it is supported by the other two services. The Royal Air Force, through the P8 Poseidon submarine-hunting aircraft, and the surface fleet of the Royal Navy are all making sure that our deterrents are safe. Of course, those workers in Barrow are constructing some of the world’s finest submarines to take to the seas, and our gratitude is deep.
We must not forget the 30,000 jobs that are dependent on this work, or the fact that we are investing in new technology and new capabilities, bringing prosperity across the country.
Mr Sweeney The Secretary of State recognises the capital investment of over £300 million that is going into the shipyard in Barrow, which is fantastic for the town. If that is good enough for the Trident renewal programme, why was it not good enough for the Type 26 programme on the Clyde, which has not seen the equivalent level of capital investment in shipyard infrastructure?
Gavin Williamson Simply, BAE Systems decided that that level of investment in the Govan shipyard was not required. But we are making a multi-year investment in Type 26s, providing an order book for the Govan shipyard into the 2030s. That is something that most shipyards would look at enviously.
The investments we have made and the decisions that we have taken on extra investment on Dreadnought mean that the new submarines will be delivered on time. To guarantee that delivery, we have modernised our entire nuclear enterprise. We have established the Defence Nuclear Organisation to manage our portfolio of nuclear programmes. We have created the Submarine Delivery Agency, which with our industry partners has made real progress on the ground in building our future submarines and ensuring that our current boats are able to fulfil their missions. We have established the new Dreadnought Alliance, which through a coalition of MOD, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce combines the skills of the large players in industry with the talents of the public sector to deliver the best for defence and the best for the nation
Meanwhile, we are continuing to refine the options and technical solutions that will inform our decisions on replacing the warhead. Next year, over half a century on since HMS Resolution’s historic voyage, Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde will become home to all our submarines. One of the largest employment sites in Scotland, the base provides for the livelihoods of around 6,800 military and civilians, and brings significant wider benefits to the local economy and the whole of Scotland. It is a salutary reminder, not just of the enormous role that Scotland, as the home of our deterrent, plays in protecting the UK and our NATO allies, but of its role in sustaining hundreds of businesses, as well as thousands of jobs, across the length and breadth of our Union.
The Barrow-in-Furness shipyard gives a sense of the sheer scale of the enterprise. The construction hall alone, where Dreadnought is being built, is the size of 21 Olympic swimming pools. The deterrent does not just provide jobs: it is helping to train thousands of apprentices in engineering, design, software development, naval architecture and combat systems. Many of those apprentices are following in the footsteps not just of their parents, but of their grandparents, and they are learning the sorts of advanced manufacturing techniques that will keep their descendants and Britain at the cutting edge of technology for years and generations to come.
I want to underline the important point made by the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), because it is about investing in those skills continuously. Barrow has one of the healthiest order books that it has seen for a long time, and the sense is that that includes a whole generation not just of Astute but of the Dreadnought class submarines. That is why we are looking at how best to take advantage of how we conduct warfare sub-surface at the moment, making sure that we invest in the right type of technology to keep a competitive advantage over our opponents, and keeping the skills here in the United Kingdom.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab) I agree with everything that the Secretary of State has just said. A lot of the work on the naval design of the early stages of Dreadnought is being carried out now, but it will come to an end quite quickly. It is important that we have follow-on work for those designers, otherwise we will get a gap and those people will be employed in other nuclear sector industries. When we come to the next generation of submarines, therefore, they will not be there.
Gavin Williamson We saw that difficult problem occur after the sustained gap in Barrow when work was not undertaken on submarines over a period of almost 10 years, so we are very aware of that. We are currently doing a study on how we develop the next generation. If the investment in the Dreadnought programme were to come to an end, the skills that are being developed in Barrow—and in Derby with Rolls-Royce and in hundreds of businesses across the country—would be lost. We would lose that national capability. That is why we are doing what the right hon. Gentleman suggests, because those skills are almost impossible to replace. We recognise that the investment in the deterrent is an investment in our future in more ways than one.
Nineteen sixty-nine will always be remembered as an iconic year: it was the year an astronaut first set foot on the moon. From a UK perspective, however, an event far less heralded has proved to be far more enduring, for the unsung heroes who began their undersea vigil that year have guaranteed our peace and prosperity for decades. Our nuclear deterrence posture is only possible thanks to their commitment. Out of sight they may be, but they are never out of mind. We can never fully repay them for what they have given our nation, but in a more uncertain world we are ensuring that they will have the means to perform their outstanding and vital service to our nation, safeguarding our way of life relentlessly for another 50 years.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab) Labour fully supports the UK’s continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, and we are committed to the renewal of the nuclear submarines.
I pay tribute to all those whose hard work and dedication have supported the deterrent over its lifespan: workers on the new Dreadnought class at sites across the country, including those whom I visited in Barrow; and Royal Navy personnel past and present who have crewed the nuclear submarines over the past 50 years. Their commitment and skill are integral to the continuous nature of the deterrent. We are indebted to them for their service, and to their families for their support.
The first duty of Government is the protection of their citizens. The nuclear deterrent makes an important contribution to our country’s security, alongside our brave armed forces and a range of conventional and non-conventional capabilities.
We recognise that we live in a world where the number of states that possess nuclear weapons has continued to grow, and where others are actively seeking to acquire them. The threats facing the UK are real and undiminished, and there is a need to deter the use of nuclear weapons in all circumstances—none of us ever wants to be in a position where the deterrent is used. If we ever got to that situation, it would represent a catastrophic failure of our rules-based system and of the very concept of deterrence.
Deterrence encompasses a broad range of actions, from diplomatic means to conventional force and, ultimately, the nuclear deterrent. We must always ensure that we have the very best conventional forces, including cyber-capabilities, and that the UK uses its influence on the world stage to ensure that we deal with conflicts and tensions early, without allowing them to escalate dangerously.
The nature of the threats we face is changing, be they the ravages of climate change, drought, starvation, gross inequality within and between countries—whether state or non-state actors—ever more complex technologies, hybrid warfare, or the sophisticated use of cyber-information warfare to attack our democratic institutions and our open public cyber-spaces. We are committed to working with fellow NATO countries to counteract such threats and to guarantee the collective security of our allies.
As a nuclear-armed power, the UK has important obligations under the non-proliferation treaty, which British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was instrumental in establishing. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of its entering into force, the only treaty that imposes a binding commitment on the nuclear-weapon states to pursue the goal of multilateral disarmament together. Labour is committed to the NPT and to working with international partners on a multilateral basis to create a nuclear-free world. In government, Labour worked to reduce the number of operationally available warheads to fewer than 160. The last Labour Government signed the international code of conduct against ballistic missile proliferation, as well as the international convention for the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism.
The other objective of the non-proliferation treaty is of course to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. Unfortunately, the number of states that possess such weapons has continued to grow, and other countries are working actively to acquire them. North Korea has continued in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, despite significant UN sanctions and attempts by the international community to seek dialogue with the regime. The Iran nuclear deal, which was so painstakingly negotiated to curtail that country’s nuclear ambitions, is now under immense pressure due to President Trump’s decision to withdraw US support for it. As a nuclear-weapon state and a member of the P5, we cannot simply stand by as the international norm against proliferation of such weapons is eroded. Instead, the UK should take a leading role in multilateral efforts to combat that trend.
We know that there have been issues with the affordability and timely delivery of our own programme. The Public Accounts Committee has said that one-year budget cycles can present problems for programmes such as Dreadnought, and it recommended using this year’s spending review as an opportunity to explore longer-term budgeting arrangements for the nuclear programme. When the Minister winds up, will he set out the discussions he has had with Treasury on that? In addition to the Dreadnought programme, the Government are in the process of considering options to replace the warheads used in the Trident missiles. Will the Minister tell the House when he expects that work to be completed?
Finally, although I had not wanted to mention the B word, the Government have acknowledged that elements of the supply chain for the nuclear enterprise are based in other European Union countries. However, almost three years since the referendum, the level of access that we will have to EU markets post Brexit is still unclear. In the light of that significant uncertainty, what assurances will the Minister offer suppliers to ensure that there will be no impediments to parts crossing borders? I will be most grateful if he addresses those issues in his winding-up speech.