The Rt. Hon Adam Ingram MP
Minister Of State For The Armed Forces
Ministry Of Defence
Floor 5 Zone B Main Building
Whitehall London SW1A 2HB
30 June 2006
Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Law
Many thanks for your letter of 26 May. You have made several interesting and challenging points, but in this letter I would like to pick up on the matter of the security of the system of deterrence itself, since this is and always has been the key to the matter. If the deterrence system is 100% secure, then there is no cause for anxiety, since NW are simply there to prevent war, and will never be used. If however, it is not 100% secure, then the longer the deterrence system is in place, the greater the probability that war will break out.
You have written, “While I agree that there is a complex system involved in providing and maintaining our nuclear deterrence capability I would not agree that deterrence theory is predicated on the assumption of this system being “perfect”. It is required that the system is fit for purpose and this is demonstrated through the continual-at-sea deployment of the Trident missiles, the training of those involved in the command and control system and the testing of that system”.
With respect, the catch phrase “fit for purpose” is not an adequate answer to the dreadful possibility that nuclear deterrence theory may give way to the practice of an all-out global nuclear exchange. “Fit for purpose” in the context given indicates merely that Trident is deployed and capable of being fired, and will therefore deter any hypothetical nuclear-armed enemy, assuming that the enemy does not wish to die, which is of course not always the case.
“Fit for purpose” does not in any way address the question of whether deterrence itself might fail in some future complex situation of interconnected political tension, ambiguous events, psychological errors, errors of interpretation and communication, and technical failure. In such a case it might come about that the order is given to fire nuclear weapons. It is very clear, given the complexity of the system, and the capacity of humans and computers for error, that this probability is greater than zero.
It might also be the case that the order to fire might be given in the absence of any of these errors, as a calculated political decision. It is undeniable that the presence of NW raises the threshold at which we go to war, but the threshold is not raised to an infinite level.
My case is therefore that possession of WMD by the UK implies their use at some time in the future with a probability approaching unity. Do you accept that this is the case?
This was in reply to this one from the Minister:
Thank you for your letter of 8 May to the Prime Minister enclosing one from your constituent, Dr Richard Lawson of The Old School House, Station Road, Congresbury, North Somerset. I am responding in view of my responsibilities as Minister of State for the Armed Forces.
Dr Lawson makes several assertions related to the ruling of the International Court of Justice in 1996 on the use of nuclear weapons and the legal implications of possessing nuclear weapons, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and “Common Law” which he suggests requires a person to take action to prevent another from breaking the law even if by doing so they themselves break the law but to a lesser degree. I will address these points in turn.
Firstly, the ruling given by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1996 was an Advisory Opinion made at the request of the General Assembly of the United Nations and concerned the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. The Court did not conclude that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would necessarily be unlawful in all circumstances; it was unable to conclude whether such threat or use would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at risk. The assertion by Dr Lawson that possession of nuclear weapons “implies the readiness to break the law by using them” is contrary to the conclusions of the ICLJ. The UK Government has said on many occasions that the UK would use nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances of self-defence and would never use any of its weapons contrary to international law.
The UK is one of the five States recognised under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a Nuclear Weapons State (NWS). Under Article II of the NPT, ~ii Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) are obliged not to develop or procure nuclear weapons. We have repeatedly made it clear that we will not use nuclear weapons against a NNWS not in material breach of its NPT obligations, unless it attacks us, our Allies or a State to which we have a security commitment, in association or alliance with a NWS. All NPT NWS (China, France, Russia, UK and US) have signed similar assurances.
The UK is fully committed to its obligations under the NPT, including those on disarmament under Article VI, and has made significant disarmament steps. In 1998, the UK withdrew and dismantled the last air-launched nuclear weapon, the Royal Air Force’s WE1 77 nuclear bombs. The dismantlement of the last remaining Chevaline (Polaris) warheads occurred in April 2002, so that Trident is now our only nuclear weapons system. In all, there has been a reduction of the UK’s operationally available stockpile of nuclear weapons to fewer than 200 warheads, representing a reduction of more than 70 per cent in the potential explosive power of our nuclear forces since the end of the Cold War. We now have a minimum nuclear deterrent and are the only nuclear power that has so far been prepared to take such important steps on the route to nuclear disarmament.
While I agree that there is a complex system involved in providing and maintaining our nuclear deterrence capability I would not agree that deterrence theory is predicated on the assumption of this system bèin~ “perfecr’. It is required that the system is fit for purpose and this is demonstrated through the continual-at-sea deployment of the Trident missiles, the training of those involved in the command and control system and the testing of that system.
However, deterrence is wider than just nuclear deterrence and all of our armed forces have a role to play in preventing war. The possession of robust military forces, in conjunction with those of our Allies, presents potential adversaries with the prospect of losses outweighing any gains they might hope to make from aggression. Both nuclear and conventional forces, therefore, contribute to deterrence by providing a credible range of options for responding proportionately to an aggressor’s behaviour. Deterrence also extends outside of the military dimension and includes diplomatic responses.
The last point concerns illegal action Dr Lawson may be considering to take under ‘Common Law’. It is not clear to me what action he is contemplating and I do not feel it would be useful to speculate on hypothetical situations except to urge him not to break the law. I would just re-iterate that possession of nuclear weapons by the UK is recognised under the NPT and that the ICJ did not find the threat or use of nuclear weapons necessarily unlawful in all circumstances.
I hope this is helpful.
The RT Hon Adam Ingram MP
I will reply to his other points after taking legal advice.