The UK would open a “Pandora’s box” if it were to consider using its nuclear arsenal against non-nuclear countries possessing equivalent weapons of mass destruction, a former defence secretary has warned.
Raising his concerns at Westminster, Labour peer Lord Reid of Cardowan argued against any shift in the potential deployment of the UK’s submarine-based deterrent.
He made his comments this evening following the Government publishing details of its major review of foreign and defence policy, known as the Integrated Review.
While it stated the UK will not fire, or threaten to use, its missiles at a non-nuclear state, it also said that assurance could be reviewed in future “if the future threat of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological capabilities, or emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact, makes it necessary”.
This has led to speculation the UK’s nuclear weapons could be used as a deterrent against devastating cyber attacks, although senior sources have suggested a biological “dirty bomb” was the kind of threat envisaged.
Speaking in Parliament, Lord Reid said: “We have always maintained that the purpose of our nuclear weapons is nuclear deterrence, not war fighting.”
But highlighting the possible change in stance, Lord Reid said: “In other words… we have shifted to a position where we are prepared apparently to use nuclear weapons in response to any form of aggression.
“Does the minister understand that huge step away from deterrence towards war fighting with nuclear weapons and does she realise the Pandora’s box that will open if the Government proceeds?”
Responding, defence minister Baroness Goldie said: “The protocols surrounding nuclear weapons have been widely understood.
“The weapon exists as a deterrent. The weapon exists to do a job of deterring in the hope it never has to be used.”
She added: “It is the deterrent aspect which is all important and it is that which I think makes it an effective presence within our Ministry of Defence capability.”
In the Integrated Review, the Government also lifted a cap on the number of nuclear warheads it can hold.
UK ministers previously committed to reducing the level to a maximum of 180 by the middle of the decade, but now the stockpile could be up to 260.
Referring to the nuclear deterrent, Lady Goldie told peers: “It is vital, it is essential it remains credible and that is why there has been the decision to increase the number of warheads.
“The inescapable virtue of a deterrent is that if it is not credible then you might as well start placing it in the scrapyard tomorrow.”