Next week, I will be attending a round table event, hosted by the non-proliferation think tank, BASIC, to consider the government’s upcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review.  To get in the mood for that, here are some thoughts on nuclear rearmament, in the context of the 2010 SDSR.

If you had asked me, six months ago, if I would ever defend the renewal of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, I would probably have laughed. Many of you will know that I have, in the past, written about my opposition to trident, first and foremost from an ethical standpoint, and that view has not changed. I continue to contend that any use of nuclear weapons would almost certainly be immoral, even if it is not technically in breach of current legal articles controlling nuclear weapons.

However, In the last few months, as I have continued to try to get an interesting research focussed job, I have read more and more, and this has led me to take a more open standpoint, at least regarding what I don’t know.

As I have said before, the decision to use a nuclear weapon would almost certainly be a war crime. The international Court of Justice has given an advisory opinion which, whilst not legally binding, basically requires a country to be threatened with destruction in order to justify the use of such weapons. In that context, the net result of using WMDs is simply that even more people will die, and the planet may be sucked into a global nuclear war from which the only cockroaches and sharks emerge.

However, the foundation of nuclear deterrence is that the mere possession of weapons deters attack. As long as the deterrent works, we should never actually need to use it. Now, I lack the experience and access to intelligence briefings necessary to judge whether the net effect of possessing nuclear weapons is to increase our security, as it petrifies other states into behaving, or to decrease our stability, by making other states feel threatened, fostering arms races and international distrust. Indeed, external observers cannot know if the deterrent is working. Several recent commentators have alluded to 9/11 and 7/7 as evidence for the failure of the nuclear deterrent, yet this is absurd. Setting aside the fact the nuclear deterrent is not designed to deal with terrorist threats, the attacks prevented by the deterrent will not be common knowledge, because they will not have happened.

Nor is the matter a straightforward one of assessing the net response of other states to the binary alternatives of renewal or disarmament; any decision regarding trident renewal has wide ramifications to our foreign policy, much of which is founded on bilateral and multilateral agreements that have the nuclear deterrent at their core. Many longstanding international partnerships, including the Special Relationship with the cousins and our position in NATO are founded on implicit obligations of defence, with the nuclear burden balanced across the Atlantic. Any unilateral disarmament decision would at the very least strain these relationships, if not shatter them, with vast consequences for UK foreign policy. Nor should we privilege our own security over that of other states – if our deterrent benefits the security of any threatened state, this must be accounted for

These factors have all contributed to the decisions of various panels of experts, ranging from government bodies to respected disarmament organisations (notably BASIC), that renewing Trident is the choice which will do most for both our security and global stability. But that does not close the issue. Renewal is not a simple yes/no question. If we are to renew trident, it is important that we do so in a way which seeks a more stable, peaceful world, which honours our Non-Proliferation Treaty commitment to pursue disarmament ‘in good faith’, and which is not morally bankrupt.

So, how can we pursue renewal whilst seeking disarmament?

First, it is important to note that renewing our deterrent means that we continue to have a substantial voice on the world stage, which we can use in a morally responsible way. It means that we maintain a position which allows us to negotiate with other nuclear states as equals. Since the end of the cold war, global warhead stockpiles have fallen from around 50,000 to around 15,000, and there has been some success in proliferation prevention, notably in Iran and Libya. Whilst progress is slow, there is a very real risk that unilateral disarmament by the United Kingdom would be counterproductive to the process. Unilateral disarmament might be successful in prompting other states to do likewise, but it would be an all or nothing move, which could fail and cost the disarmament community a significant advocate.

Disarmament might also cost us our permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This is not simply a matter of status and homeland security. In the face of an increasingly belligerent and unpredictable Russia, and given the long history of distrust between Russia and the US, it is important that the intermediate states of the Security Council (i.e. the UK and France) continue to play a role in balancing the superpowers and preventing a return to Cold War politics. Renewal allows us to advocate for balance and take the lead in a responsibly managed, gradual decline in global nuclear power without risking all our chips on one hand.

Most significantly, the nature and scale of renewal can be used as part of multilateral arms reduction and non-proliferation agreements. As of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the government plans that the new submarines, when introduced, will each carry 40 operational warheads, from a maximum stock of 120 operational warheads (with at most 60 more warheads stockpiled). These warhead numbers are a reduction from current levels and initial plans, and the SDSR also tightened UK declaratory policy, confirming that ‘the UK will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT [unless in breach of the treaty]’. These are commendable steps on the ‘glide path’ to disarmament, howeverthe concessions were made in isolation, without regard to global disarmament. This, it seems to me, was a missed opportunity, and a failure in our moral duty and legal obligations, as nuclear recognised party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue disarmament ‘in good faith’ both at home and around the world.

However, we do have substantial scope for further scaling back of the renewed nuclear deterrent as we move forward. In the 2010 SDSR, the government sought, where possible, to delay spending on renewal, meaning that many parts of the deterrent will not be confirmed for well over a decade. We could, therefore, commit to reducing the number of submarines to only three if other states committed to eliminating tactical nuclear weapons (i.e. nuclear bombs), and maintaining only ballistic missiles, which are inherently less aggressive.

Other positive steps could include relaxing the need for a Continuous At Sea Deterrent (one submarine always on patrol) – which could be reinstated were the global outlook to change significantly, but which sets a tone of positive intention – establishing a “no first strike” declaratory policy, reducing the number of warheads and missiles, or eliminating the ‘Moscow criterion’ for the level of deterrence (that the UK should have sufficient numbers of missiles and warheads to reliably penetrate the missile defences around Moscow). Any such moves should be made in a responsible way, a part of wider non-proliferation agreements. The reductions laid out in the 2010 SDSR failed to do this, as they were focused on cutting spending and growing the political capital of the Conservative led coalition, rather than on securing similar reductions from other nuclear powers. This was a missed opportunity which should not be repeated. The nuclear issue should not be allowed to be a means of political point scoring – it is simply too important!

In 2011, the USA and Russia agreed to New START, an arms reduction treaty that lowers mutually agreed limits on the numbers of missiles and bombers (delivery methods) as well as the number of warheads, both deployed and in storage. Russia and the US alone have nuclear warhead stockpiles in the thousands, so it makes sense for the superpowers to collaborate on arms reduction. This leaves the UK, France, India, Pakistan, China, Israel and North Korea, and it would make sense for these states to engage in multilateral arms reduction. Setting aside North Korea, which has removed itself from international forums as far as possible, and which has only ~10 warheads, these states have broadly similar arsenals, ranging from 80 warheads (Israel) to 300 warheads (France). It would therefore be a natural grouping with which to begin a new multilateral process of arms reduction.

The security and foreign relations ramifications of abandoning a nuclear deterrent have led the government to commit to renewal. Much of the opposition agrees. What we must therefore do is pursue renewal in a way which is conducive to stability, peace, and arms reduction by all nuclear powers (something unilateral disarmament would cost us). Let’s ensure that, in another forty years, there is no need to discuss renewal, as the deterrent has ceased to exist through multilateral processes.


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