Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

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 Deterrent force?

  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; and

    (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 and anxiety"

  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 disease.

  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 ambitions.

  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 have.

  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 value.

  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 argued that:

    "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 Non-Proliferation Treaty.

  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 security interests.

8 December 2006

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