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Towards a world free of nuclear weapons

February 22, 2017 1:40 PM
By Neil Stockley in Liberal Democrat Voice

PolicyAt Spring Conference in York, Liberal Democrats will debate a new policy paper, Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons.

This is an important debate for Liberal Democrats, because we understand all too well the catastrophic consequences of detonating nuclear weapons. The ethical questions they raise go to the heart of our party's values: we believe that any nuclear war is morally unacceptable and must never be fought. We appreciate that as a founding signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation on Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the UK has a legal responsibility to reinvigorate international nuclear disarmament initiatives. And we have always recognised the Government's duty to protect the British people from attack and to play a full part in protecting the UK's NATO allies.

We are reviewing our nuclear weapons policies because the international security situation has changed, and not for the better, since 2013 when they were last updated. With Russia's growing military adventurism, increased instability in the Middle East and a changing balance of power in Asia, the world is a more dangerous place than it has been for many years. In this challenging environment, strengthening NATO solidarity, military capability, and coherence should be the highest priority for the UK's defence policy, especially if we leave the EU. The policy paper concludes that this is not the right time to renounce our nuclear weapons. The UK should maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent.

We also contend that, given the current international security situation, the nuclear weapons states must get back to the negotiating table and make progress on disarmament measures and strengthening the framework for the long-term elimination of nuclear weapons. Progress has slowed in recent years. Still, the UK's continued role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as a recognised nuclear weapon state under the NPT present an opportunity for this country to reinvigorate international diplomacy to achieve nuclear disarmament.

The UK can seek to regain momentum in the disarmament and control of nuclear weapons primarily through its role in the 'P5 process'. There are three specific areas for action: a concerted effort to build a regime for de-alerting nuclear weapons; strengthening the legal framework for arms control and disarmament, including pressing for the final ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); and developing new verification and transparency measures.

We must also consider the future shape of the UK's minimum nuclear deterrent. The Trident successor programme (now called Dreadnought) has also moved on since 2013. The paper is clear that the current threats to the United Kingdom do not warrant maintaining a nuclear weapons system held in a Cold War posture. Nor is the 'like-for-like' replacement of the Vanguard-Trident fleet required to maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent. With the UK facing no active hostilities with a nuclear power and no immediate territorial threat, the current continuous at-sea deterrent (CASD) posture could be discontinued without threatening the UK's current or future security.

We propose that the UK should, working with its NATO partners, adopt a medium-readiness responsive deterrent posture. This would see the UK abandoning CASD, and employing new measures, such as gaps in patrols, irregular patrolling patterns and de-mating missiles from warheads. The UK's adversaries would not know when its ships were armed, meaning that a credible deterrent would be maintained. Under our proposals, Dreadnought would continue, but we currently envision that three boats instead of four would need to be built.

This way, Liberal Democrats would take a step down the nuclear ladder, in a way that contributes to the UK's commitments under the NPT and provides others with an incentive to do so as well. Our change of posture away from continuous patrols could be made in return for similar pledges from other P5 states, under the international nuclear disarmament process. The UK could call for a reduction in nuclear weapons stockpiles, or persuade other states to move away from their current 'hair-trigger' postures.

Finally, we would use the next Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2020/21 to consider how the UK can best deliver a medium-readiness responsive posture. The SDSR would look again at the cost of Dreadnought, about which Liberal Democrats have expressed concerns.

The new policy paper sets out a viable strategy to put all nuclear weapons beyond use. The proposals are consistent with our internationalist values and our long-standing commitments to working actively and constructively through alliances, partnerships and international institutions, within a framework of international law.

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