International arms controls dangerously close to breakdown, say peers

The system of international arms control is dangerously close to breakdown, raising the risk of nuclear war through miscalculation, a House of Lords committee has warned.

The International Relations Committee said the danger nuclear weapons could be used in conflict was now greater than at any time since the Cold War.

While it acknowledged that Russia was in breach of its international treaty obligations, it said the West urgently needed to open a dialogue with Moscow in the interests of nuclear stability.

HMS Victorious
The Government has been urged to review the resilience of the UK’s submarine-based Trident nuclear deterrent (Royal Navy/PA)

At the same time, it called on the Government to review the resilience of Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent amid concerns its command and control systems could be vulnerable to cyber attack.

The committee’s report comes ahead of a meeting next week at the United Nations in New York in preparation for next year’s review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, 50 years after it came into force.

It said the level of nuclear risk had increased since the sharp decline of relations between the West and Russia following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

It cited the recent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty – originally signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 – with the US accusing Russia of repeated violations of its provisions.

At the same time, it said international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons were being undermined by the US administration’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

“Irresponsible rhetoric, combined with a lack of communication between nuclear possessor states, creates serious risks of nuclear use due to misinterpretation and miscalculation,” the committee said.

“We are dangerously close to a world without arms control agreements, which would increase the risk of nuclear use.

“Notwithstanding current tensions, the Government should be prepared to talk to Russia about nuclear strategic stability.

“The risks of miscommunication, misperception and miscalculation are too grave to allow other aspects of Russia’s behaviour to preclude talks on nuclear issues.”

The committee said that while nuclear stockpiles had fallen since the 1980s, progress on disarmament had stalled, while the programmes of some nuclear powers had gone “well beyond what can properly be described as modernisation” further raising the risks.

At the same time, it said that the UK needed to ensure its submarine-based Trident deterrent was not becoming vulnerable to disruption by emerging technologies, particularly cyber.

“Nuclear possessor states are developing more sophisticated capabilities, utilising new technologies, and there is increasing ‘entanglement’ between conventional and nuclear weapons,” it said.

“These developments increase the possibility of miscalculation and the speed of decision-making, both of which could result in an escalation of hostilities.”

The committee chairman, former cabinet minister Lord Howell of Guildford said: “Disintegrating relationships between nuclear possessor states, new capabilities and technologies, mixed with a lack of communication and understanding, mean that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater now than it has been since the Cold War. “

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