50th anniversary of the continuous at sea deterrent

10th April 2019

Following the Government statement to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the continuous at sea deterrent (CASD), Philip Dunne welcomes the decision to maintain the deterrent as it will provide the ultimate guarantee of safety for our children and grandchildren in an inceasingly unpredictable world. He also commends the decision to reduce our overall stockpile of nuclear warheads and thereby lead the way in showing that the existing stock of nuclear weapons in the world can be reduced.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who painted a very clear and well-informed picture of the threat that we face. It is also a pleasure to speak in the debate.

I last spoke about this subject during a debate on alternatives to Trident under the coalition Government. It was a most unusual debate, in that it began with the then Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury putting forward one position which would put CASD at risk, and ended with me, in closing the debate, putting forward another that would sustain it for the foreseeable future. I recall colleagues—perhaps in all parts of the House—being somewhat bemused at the novel idea of Ministers pulling in opposite directions. I had firmly wished that those days were behind us. However, in a sense that highlights the main point that I wish to make today: regardless of the turbulent politics of the time or the party of government of the day, the continuous at-sea deterrent has been there, day in, day out and night after night, the ultimate guarantor of our nation’s security against existential blackmail or threat.

Let me begin by adding my personal tribute to the Royal Navy personnel who have made Operation Relentless the longest sustained military operation in this nation’s history. With each boat having two captains and two crews, allowing continuous deployment, there are a large number of personnel on whom we rely and who perform to the highest standard in the challenging conditions that other Members have already described. We should also be grateful for the support of their families; long operations can take a particular toll on loved ones. There are pinch points of skills, which means that attracting and retaining skilled submariners is vital, but difficult, for the maintenance of the deterrence. I support the Royal Navy’s efforts to allow increased flexibility in service to take account of modern family life in such difficult circumstances.

Of course, the deterrent has an impact on employment not only through boat crews but in the wider community. I hope that the House will excuse this shameless plug, but colleagues who read the Dunne review last year will be aware of the contribution of defence to our economy around the UK, and the submarine programme is a vital part of that. About 6,800 military and civilian personnel are currently employed at Her Majesty’s naval base Clyde. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, that number is scheduled to increase to more than 8,500, and Clyde will then become the largest employment site in Scotland. Those vital skilled jobs would be lost should the Scottish National party’s policy of scrapping the nuclear deterrent ever come to pass. Thousands more are employed in keeping the deterrent both current and afloat, working for companies in the industrial supply chain in constituencies all over the country—in addition to the particular concentration in the constituency of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who is in the Chamber to hear me point out that he is a long-standing champion of this whole endeavour. Now more than ever, it is vital that we make the case for our continuous at-sea deterrent.

Looking back over the 50 years of Operation Relentless, it is clear that in its infancy the need for the deterrent was fresh in the public consciousness, following the horrors of the second world war. In the years that followed, the immediate concern of Soviet proliferation and posturing outlined the very real potential existential threat to the west—perhaps no more so than during the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world so close to the brink of devastating nuclear war. But since the fall of the Berlin wall 30 years ago and the collapse of the Soviet Union, current generations have faced a less obvious threat. For some, that has led to an undercurrent of public perception—so readily fed by social media misinformation—that there is less threat, and that the need for a nuclear deterrent is behind us. But that, as we have heard so well from the hon. Member for Bridgend, is fundamentally to turn blind eyes—to underestimate and ignore the global risks that we face as a country.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that also much of that disinformation that is on social media is actually generated out of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea?

The hon. Lady is quite right to point out that the nature of warfare and threat has changed. It is no longer purely a direct kinetic effect. It is taking place in the airwaves all around us, and it will take effect not just through social media; the potential to disrupt vital national infrastructure is becoming a tool of conflict for the future. That is one of the challenges that I feel that we, as a nation, have to face up to more than we have to date.

The attitudes that I have just described are personified by the previous career of the Leader of the Opposition. I am sorry to have to raise that again and slightly disrupt the consensus that there is across at least the two main parties, but if, God forbid, such attitudes were ever allowed to pervade public discourse and become the official policy of the Opposition, it would do irreparable harm to our national security.

Now, as in the past, the UK faces a range of threats for which conventional forces simply cannot act as sufficient deterrent. The increasing Russian aggression, which we have heard about, the upgrading of their nuclear arsenal and delivery mechanisms, will continue to threaten the potential security of the west. Other states, including Iran and North Korea, maintain their nuclear ambitions despite international pressure. The existence of 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world today shows the risk that we still face.

Fortunately, in the face of such threats, we do not stand alone. Our membership of NATO—a nuclear alliance, as has been said by others—remains the cornerstone of our defence, and our decision to maintain the continuous at-sea deterrent sends a clear signal to our allies that we will continue to play our part in contributing to the security of all NATO members. It also provides NATO with another centre of decision making, alongside the primacy of our strongest ally, the United States. By sharing the burden of nuclear responsibility, we demonstrate the true collaborative nature of the nuclear alliance and of the mutual defence we are committed to upholding.

That close co-operation over our nuclear capability with the United States is at the very core of the strategic defence relationship between our two countries. It also places us in a pivotal role in offering continuing leadership to the free world. That was encapsulated by Winston Churchill in his last great speech in this place as Prime Minister, as he ushered in the era of the strategic deterrent. He said:

“Our moral and military support of the United States and our possession of nuclear weapons of the highest quality and on an appreciable scale, together with their means of delivery, will greatly reinforce the deterrent power of the free world, and will strengthen our influence within the free world.”—[Official Report, 1 March 1955; Vol. 537, c. 1897.]

In my view, that remains the case today, and is worth our bearing in mind as we approach the challenge of life after we leave the European Union.

Britain has the opportunity, as a responsible country, to show that nuclear powers need not relentlessly pursue further proliferation. While other states seek to increase their stockpiles, we have committed to reducing our overall nuclear weapons stockpile to no more than 180 warheads by the mid-2020s, having already reduced our operationally available warheads and the number of warheads and missiles on each boat, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), the previous Defence Secretary, has just told us.

Britain has already led the way in this decade in showing that the existing stock of nuclear weapons in the world can be reduced. Next year, there will be another important milestone in that effort: the 2020 review conference of the parties to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Our position as a P5 member of the UN Security Council provides the UK with the opportunity to continue to make the case for non-proliferation. Our work on developing disarmament verification solutions, particularly with the US, Sweden and Norway through the Quad Nuclear Verification Partnership, is helping to deliver an effective verification regime, which is essential if non-proliferation is to become a trusted way forward.

The fact that we have not had to use a nuclear weapon in conflict is a sign of their efficacy. Discouraging action through fear of consequences is the very definition of deterrence. In that respect, our continuous at-sea deterrent has been remarkably successful. A credible deterrent is not something that we can afford to relax. The skills on which it relies cannot be switched off and back on again in a time of crisis. To move away from a deterrent-based system would present an enormous risk to the country. It has not been shown how any alternatives to the deterrent would make the UK safer in the face of existential threats now and for future generations.

I point out to colleagues who believe that future risk is small enough to justify the removal of our deterrent that the world is an incredibly unpredictable place. The Dreadnought class of submarines is due to come into service in the 2030s with a 30-year expected lifespan. Our decision to maintain the deterrent will provide the ultimate guarantee of safety for our children and grandchildren.


Earlier in the same debate

I join my right hon. Friend in applauding the speech from the shadow Defence Secretary, but does he share my disappointment that she did not take any interventions? She may have been able to explain the fundamental flaw in Labour’s Front-Bench position, which is that we cannot have an effective deterrent if we have committed never to use it, as the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition have done.

I accept the fact that Labour has a problem with certain key figures who have always been opposed in principle to the possession of a nuclear deterrent. However, today is not the day to have that debate. I know that the shadow Defence Secretary and every one of the Labour Back Benchers whom I see opposite are wholly committed to keeping this country safe and strong. If anyone can ensure that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor are not allowed to undermine the sensible policy outlined from the Opposition Front Bench today, it is that cohort of people. I wish them the best of luck in that endeavour.


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