Memorandum from Professor John Baylis
One of the central dilemmas for the nuclear
powers during the cold war period was whether policies of deterrence
could be credibly maintained alongside policies designed to discourage
further nuclear proliferation. The not unreasonable question non-nuclear
states ask is: "If you think nuclear weapons are valuable,
why shouldn't we acquire them ourselves?" A fairly successful
attempt to balance these two objectives, however, was achieved
in the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970 when a bargain was struck
between the nuclear and non-nuclear powers. Non-nuclear states
who signed the agreement agreed not to develop nuclear weapons
provided the nuclear powers made serious attempts to move towards
full nuclear disarmament. Despite constant complaints from the
non-nuclear states that the nuclear powers were not living up
to their part of the bargaining, there was at least some move
towards de-nuclearisation towards the end of the cold war, with
the START and SORT agreements. On the whole the bargain contained
in Article 6 of the Treaty held.
This dilemma for the nuclear powers continued
into the post-cold war period but sharpened as a result of the
renewed proliferation of nuclear weapons that occurred from 1998
onwards and the pressures that this has created for the continuation
of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is in this context that the
decision about the future of the British nuclear deterrent has
to be taken. Should Britain continue with its deterrent? If so,
what form should it take and what measures can be undertaken,
in a world in which further nuclear proliferation is taking place,
to slow down, if not to reverse, this process?
1. Does Britain continue to need a Nuclear
There is no doubt, that the political and strategic
context in which Britain operates has changed dramatically since
the end of the cold war, and especially since 9/11. Few would
disagree with the judgement of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review
that "there is today no direct threat to the United Kingdom
or Western Europe". The critical questions relate to whether
nuclear weapons still have any utility:
(i) in the context of "the war on terror";
(ii) in an era of uncertainty and anxiety;
(iii) as useful political or diplomatic instruments.
(i) "The War on Terror"
There is a general consensus, at least in the
UK, that nuclear weapons are unlikely to have much, if any, utility
in the present campaign against terrorism. Although it is extremely
difficult for terrorist groups to develop nuclear weapons, there
is at least a possibility that they might be able to acquire nuclear
materials and develop what has been described as a "dirty
bomb". In such circumstances, it could not be ruled out that
such devices might be used against targets in the United Kingdom
or elsewhere in Europe or the US. The same would be true for chemical
or biological devices which have proliferated to an even greater
extent than nuclear weapons.
It is not likely, however, how deterrence would
work against non-state terrorist groups who decided to pursue
this strategy. In circumstances where it is clear that the terrorists
are operating from a particular territory, then deterrence aimed
at the government of that state might work but this invariably
will not be the case. Equally, with terrorist groups often using
"martyrdom tactics", the rational dimension of traditional
nuclear deterrence strategies might well not work anyway. It is
conceivable, especially given US nuclear doctrine, that specialized
and nuclear devices might be considered against the directing
centres of major terrorist organizations operating deep in mountainous
areas. Quite apart from issues relating to the crossing of the
nuclear threshold, Britain does not operate an independent tactical
nuclear weapons capability and is unlikely to see much utility
in developing such a capability for such actions in the future.
(ii) Nuclear Weapons in an "era of uncertainty
Although British nuclear capabilities have been
significantly reduced since the end of the cold war, the Strategic
Defence Review in 1998, emphasized that the Trident force was
necessary as an insurance against uncertain future developments.
The Review argued that there was a:
"...continuing risk from the proliferation
of nuclear weapons, and a certainty that a number of other countries
will retain substantial nuclear arsenals. "
This meant, it was argued, that Trident was
likely to remain a necessary element of British national security
into the foreseeable future.
This argument was at the heart of the Government's
response to the House of Commons Defence Committee Report on "The
Future of the UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the Strategic
Context" and it remains central to the arguments put forward
by the Government in its December 2006 White Paper. The Labour
Government clearly remains committed to the idea that nuclear
weapons are a useful insurance in a period of great anxiety and
uncertainty. Nuclear weapons are seen as useful in "deterring
acts of aggression, in insuring against the re-emergence of major
strategic military threats, in preventing nuclear coercion, and
in preserving peace and stability and stability." In Mr Blair's
words: "The risk of giving up something that has been one
of the mainstays of our security since the war, and doing so when
the one certain thing about our world today is its uncertainty,
is not a risk I feel we can responsibly take."
This is clearly a difficult argument to prove
or disprove but it is one that those who wish to get rid of Britain's
nuclear weapons need to confront.
The arguments against the view that nuclear
weapons are needed as an insurance against an uncertain future
tend to be that there are no current nuclear threats to the UK
and none are likely to arise in the foreseeable future. According
to this view, to spend £20 billion on a hypothetical risk
which is very unlikely to arise does not make much sense. The
money could be better spent elsewhere. There are also those who
argue that even if nuclear threats do re-emerge, nuclear weapons
do not provide an effective means of providing for national security.
Indeed, the very presence of British nuclear weapons, it is sometimes
argued, encourages others to develop their own nuclear forces,
which presents extra dangers which undermine, rather than strengthen
UK security interests. According to this view maintaining a deterrent
posture directly undermines the pursuit of non-proliferation objectives.
There are also, of course, those who hold very strong ethical
objections to nuclear weapons. The Archbishop of Wales recently
argued that the £20 billion that replacing the deterrent
would cost would be better spent on trying to combat global child
Both sets of arguments for and against are essentially
a matter of belief or judgement. Much depends on how the changes
taking place in international relations are viewed. Since the
end of the cold war we have moved from a bipolar to an essentially
unipolar structure of world politics. Rather like unipolar systems
in the past, the United States, as the predominant power, sees
itself (and those who support it) challenged by those who reject
its power, influence and values. At the same time, its predominance
is likely to be further challenged, by other emerging and aspiring
great powers, many of whom possess, or see value in acquiring,
weapons of mass destruction. As such, unipolarity seems destined
to give way, over time, to a more multipolar international system.
If this happens, as in the past, the system is likely to be unstable
as competing, and often changing, coalitions pursue their global
The question which those responsible for planning
Britain's national security have to face, therefore, is whether,
in such uncertain circumstances (in which nuclear proliferation
is likely to continue), maintaining a nuclear deterrent is the
best course of action. In such circumstances, would Britain wish
to be without such powerful instruments of national security?
A case can certainly be made that that prudence suggests that
because nuclear threats might well re-emerge in the future, and
nuclear coercion cannot be ruled out, some form of nuclear capability
may well have some continuing utility. That appears to be the
view of the growing number of nuclear states in the world and
it seems unlikely that British renunciation of nuclear weapons
at this time would have very much impact on their security decisions.
This is clearly a matter of judgement, but judgement is all we
If the "uncertainty" argument remains
powerful this does not, however, mean that Britain should not
consider the future of its deterrent force in the context of the
contemporary dangers of nuclear proliferation or take account
of ethical considerations.
One of the arguments against the nuclear deterrent
force is that Britain continues to believe, misguidedly, that
such weapons confer status and are useful diplomatic instruments
of policy. It is noteworthy that in its recent response to the
House of Commons Defence Committee Report mentioned earlier, the
government went out of its way to suggest that this view did not
weigh very heavily in its judgement about the need for nuclear
weapons. It was argued that Britain maintained nuclear weapons,
"not because of the status, they provided but for the security
they gave to the UK." The government was not saying here
that "status" or "political viability" were
irrelevant but rather that such considerations were of significantly
lesser importance in its calculations than their military, deterrent
This seems a reasonable position to take. It
may not be fashionable to say so but whether we like it or not,
nuclear weapons are perceived by many as powerful military instruments
that confer "status" on those who possess them. Equally,
although it is extremely difficult to quantify or indeed prove
that nuclear weapons can, in certain circumstances, have political
value and help to reinforce foreign policy, it seems likely that
they do. The possession of nuclear weapons by other states, would
seem to give them a particular status or influence in certain
international circumstances. At least that is a popular perception.
It remains the case, however, that these are very much secondary
arguments and on their own they would not be convincing as an
argument to retain a nuclear deterrent force.
2. What form should a nuclear deterrent force
take and when should decisions be taken?
If it is accepted that nuclear weapons might
be of value because of the dangers and uncertainties of the world
in which we live, and that prudence suggests that Britain should
retain some form of nuclear capability, the key question is what
kind of deterrent force that should be.
For much of the cold war period the consensus
amongst strategists was that Britain needed an invulnerable, therefore
sea-based, system utilizing US missiles to deliver nuclear weapons
systems. Surviving pre-emptive action remains a critical part
of contemporary deterrence and consequently there do not appear
to be strong arguments to diverge from this formula.
Given that decisions about warhead design appear
to have been taken already, the main issues for the present Parliament
relate to the Trident missiles and the Vanguard submarines. Trident
came into service in 1994 with a planned life of 25 years. Similarly
the Vanguard submarines will come to the end of their operational
life in the 2020's. The US has already decided to extend the life
of the Trident DS missile into the 2040's. It would seem to make
sense for a variety of political and military reasons for Britain
to join this programme. Going it alone is likely to be too expensive
and the advantages of collaborating with the US rather than France
remains overwhelming (despite the growing anti-Americanism associated
with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).
There is also an opportunity for the government
to continue to operate the submarines beyond their original operational
life span. In their reply to the House of Commons Report the government
"We now believe that, if required, this
(extending the life of the submarines) would be possible, albeit
with gradually increasing cost and some risk of reduced availability,
perhaps out to the mid-2020s."
This is also the view expressed in the December
2006 White Paper.
Again this seems a reasonable decision to take
at the present time.
There remains a continuing question, however,
about a replacement for the Vanguard submarines and when a decision
is needed. The House of Commons Defence Committee indicated that
this decision could be left until 2010 (given the 14 year lead
time involved). The Government, however, indicated in its reply
that "it would be imprudent to assume that any successor
to the Vanguard-class submarine could be designed, procured and
deployed within 14 years". The December 2006 White Paper
reinforced this view, arguing that this decision needed to be
taken during 2007.
If it is believed that a British deterrent force
is still needed for reasons of future uncertainty, then the submarine
force will need to be replaced. In terms of cost effectiveness
the issue is whether to extend the life of the present force and
then within a few years develop a new force or to take the decision
to procure the new submarine force sooner. In terms of cost effectiveness
the latter argument would seem to be more sensible.
3. The Continuous-at-Sea Deterrent Cycle
In its analysis of the future of the nuclear
deterrent the House of Commons Defence Committee expressed the
view that the force might not be needed to undertake continuous
patrols at sea.
"In the light of the reduced threat we
currently face, an alternative possibility would be to retain
a deterrent, but not continuously at sea. "
This was not an argument, however that government
officials found convincing. In response, they argued that this
had been considered in the Strategic Defence Review and rejected
on the grounds that "ending continuous deterrent patrols
would create new risks of crisis escalation if it proved necessary
to sail a Trident submarine in a period of rising tension or crisis".
This was particularly risky, it was suggested, because of Britain's
"single nuclear system" and because government might
be forced "into earlier and hastier decision making if strategic
circumstances were to deteriorate".
Arguments relating to crisis stability are not
unimportant and need to be considered carefully. Equally, however,
there are other arguments which relate to British security which
also have to be part of the calculation. Given that we now live
in a very different strategic context to the cold war, there are
issues relating to arms control, nuclear proliferation and national
security which also require careful consideration.
Currently multilateral arms control in general,
and the Non- Proliferation Treaty in particular, are in crisis.
In part, this is the result of US scepticism of the utility of
arms control arrangements and a focus in recent years on the primacy
of counter-proliferation policies rather than broader support
for non-proliferation arrangements through diplomatic mean. At
the same time, there are growing dangers associated with the emergence
of North Korea and possibly Iran as new nuclear powers. Should
Iran acquire nuclear weapons there are clearly dangers of further
nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, with discussions already
underway about nuclear power in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
In this strategic context, the UK would seem to have an important
security interest in re-establishing a higher priority for arms
control and helping to shore up the ailing Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Even though it has scaled down its deterrent force in important
ways in recent years, the decision to replace or extend the life
of the Trident force will inevitably lead to accusations that
the UK is not living up to its commitment under Article 6 of the
Consequently, given this important national
security interest in helping to reinvigorate international non-proliferation
norms, a case can be made that important gestures, such as giving
up continuous nuclear patrolling, as well as cutting the number
of warheads to 160 and reducing the number of submarines to three,
might help to re-enforce British diplomacy in this area. This
would probably not prevent further proliferation but it might
help to slow it down and it would help to reinforce an important
aspect of British diplomacy. At present Britain's position on
this issue is currently relatively weak.
In the cold war, crisis stability was an important
consideration given the stand-off between the nuclear powers.
That situation no longer exists, giving Britain more room for
manoeuvre. Giving up the "continuous-at-sea deterrent cycle"
would need to be kept under careful review and could be reversed
relatively easily over a period if the strategic context changed.
Such changes, however, are unlikely to take place overnight giving
Britain time to adjust.
While the argument for continuing the British
nuclear deterrent appears more marginal now than it did during
the cold war, there would appear to be a case, given the dangerous,
uncertain and changing world in which we live, for replacing the
Vanguard-class submarines and joining the American programme designed
to extend the life of the Trident DS missile. WE simply do not
know what the world will be like in 2050. At the same time, however,
these decisions need to be considered in the broader context of
their impact on the British national security interest of helping
to prevent nuclear proliferation. In this context a case can be
made for giving serious consideration to the need for the ending
of continuous patrolling by British nuclear submarines, as well
as scaling down the number of warheads and submarines which the
government is considering. Both parts of this dual approach to
the future of the nuclear deterrent are likely to receive popular
support because of the contemporary anxieties which exist. Given
these anxieties, it would be surprising in the next few years
if there was a reversal of the traditional majority support for
the nuclear deterrent force. Equally, there is likely to be considerable
support for a policy designed, if not to regain the moral high
ground, then at least to reinforce an important part of the traditional
multilateral arms control agenda. Trying to achieve a balance
between deterrence and non-proliferation, difficult as it is,
and unsatisfactory as it is, would appear to be in Britain's national
8 December 2006