Memorandum from Nick Ritchie
(i) The British Government has decided to
retain nuclear weapons into the 2050s by modernising the current
Trident weapon system. The government's multiple rationales for
doing so are set out in the December 2006 White Paper, supported
by a particular interpretation of the strategic threat environment.
It is important to recognise that the government's rationales
and threat perceptions are based on a series of assumptions and
assertions rather than a set of objective truths.
(ii) In order to facilitate as robust and
thorough debate as possible this submission highlights the central
assumptions and assertions presented in the White Paper. It raises
a series of questions that could usefully be put to those policy-makers
involved in the Trident modernisation policy-making process.
(iii) This submission does not argue that
the government's assertions and assumptions are wrong or unfounded.
The purpose is to position the government's arguments as subjective
interpretations (rather than objective facts) in order to allow
a thorough and critical analysis of the government's claims.
1. The government argues that "the
conditions for complete UK nuclear disarmament do not yet exist."
For this judgment to change, the paper argues, there would need
to be greater progress in reducing existing global nuclear stockpiles
and in global non-proliferation (p.15 para 2-12 of the White Paper).
1.1 The government asserts that the possession
of nuclear weapons by the UK must remain rhetorically linked to
further progress in world-wide nuclear reductions, but it does
not say why. Several questions stem from this:
Q: If there is a clear relationship between
Britain's nuclear arsenal and those of other countries in the
context of enhancing British security, what is it and how does
Q: What, for example, is the link, if any,
between British security and the gradual emergence of North Korea's
primitive nuclear force over the past 15 years?
Q: Why should Britain not move beyond possession
of nuclear weapons just because other governments still deem them
necessary? Why should British procurement decisions be dependent
upon the nuclear arsenals of others that constitute little or
no strategic military threat to the UK?
1.2 The assumption behind the government's
judgement is twofold: first, that Britain's security will somehow
be diminished if it winds down its nuclear capability whilst other
countries retain nuclear arsenals; and second, that the only way
in which the UK will consider moving beyond nuclear weapons is
as part of a global nuclear disarmament initiative. The logic
behind this assumption needs to be made clear.
1.3 The government also implies that there
is only one choice to be made, and that is between a robust but
minimum nuclear force and nuclear disarmament. In fact there are
a number of intermediary steps. Much work has been done since
the end of the Cold War to explore how the nuclear-weapon states
might work towards lower and lower numbers of nuclear weapons.
There is no reason why the UK could not explore and eventually
undertake such intermediary steps.
2. The government argues that "the
fundamental principles of nuclear deterrence have not changed
since the end of the Cold War" (p 17 para 3-3).
2.1 This is an assertion, a point of view.
Nuclear deterrence is a contested concept. It evolved in strategic
thinking throughout the Cold War from massive retaliation to assured
destruction to flexible response. Since the end of the Cold War
the utility and validity of nuclear deterrence has been widely
questioned on both the left and right of political thought as
the world enters a "second nuclear age" characterised
by the end of the Cold War superpower confrontation and the spread
of nuclear weapons beyond the traditional "major powers".
2.2 The `principles' of nuclear deterrence
are not objective truths; instead they are better conceived as
theoretical concepts that prescribe particular "ways of doing
things". Different bodies of thought have different things
to say about nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. The government's
assertion is not necessarily wrong, but it does not provide any
evidence for its case.
3. The government argues that "Nuclear
weapons remain a necessary element of the capability we need to
deter threats from others possessing nuclear weapons" (p
17 para 3-3).
3.1 This is a bold assertion. It is based
on the assumption that "we", Britain, need to actively
deter the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by other countries
that possess them. This need in terms of the threat Britain faces
is asserted, it is not explained.
3.2 This statement is also based on the
assertion that nuclear weapons are a necessary response to the
possibility of a military threat from nuclear armed foes. This
is not the case. Japan, for example, faces serious potential nuclear
threats from North Korea, China and, at a stretch, Russia (with
whom it still has territorial disputes). Yet it does not deem
the possession of nuclear weapons a necessary response, it has
responded in other ways. Similarly, in 1994 Ukraine decided against
retaining the Soviet nuclear forces it inherited after the Cold
War and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state despite a
very uncertain security environment. In light of this the question
must be asked:
Q: Why does Britain specifically need nuclear
weapons to actively deter the use or threat of use of nuclear
weapons by other countries that possess them? Why not Germany,
Venezuela, or Thailand for example?
3.3 Use of terms such as necessity and need
imply that the government has little choice but to retain nuclear
weapons. In fact the White Paper constructs a particular threat
environment and presents certain assertions as facts in order
to legitimise the continued possession of nuclear weapons as the
only "rational" or "logical" or "appropriate"
response. This is not the case. Perfectly valid but different
interpretations of threat and emphasis on different assertions
as fact yield different "logical" responses.
4. The government argues that the UK should
retain nuclear weapons in order to provide "an independent
centre of nuclear decision-making" that "enhances the
overall deterrent effect of allied nuclear forces" (p 18
para 3-4 bullet three).
4.1 This assumes two things: first, that
the NATO alliance requires multiple `centres of nuclear decision-making'
to be effective; and second, that without Britain's nuclear forces
the `deterrent effect' of NATO's military might would be reduced
or undermined. This raises a number of questions:
Q: If this logic is accepted, would more
independent centres of decision-making increase the "deterrent
effect" yet further? Would a nuclear Germany, Italy and Greece,
for example, strengthen NATO and therefore British security?
Q: What is the logic
behind the assertion that having multiple centres of nuclear decision-making
enhances the "overall deterrent effect" of NATO, other
than saying that it does?
Q: Under what realistic future conditions
would Britain place itself at risk of nuclear attack that did
not involve the vital security interests of NATO and/or the USA?
(Particularly since on p 23 para 4-7 the government states that
it considers "a deep and enduring breakdown in relations
with the US" highly unlikely)
5. The government seeks to justify continued
possession of nuclear weapons by stating that the proliferation
of nuclear weapons is likely to continue and, when combined with
"other risks and challenges to future global stability",
"could lead to an increased risk of conflict involving
a nuclear-armed state"" (p 18).
5.1 The assertion here is that more nuclear-weapon
states mean more chance of conflict with a nuclear power and therefore
a greater need for a British nuclear arsenal. The government does
not explain the logic behind this assertion. One could equally
argue that Britain would be less likely to engage in conflict
with a nuclear-armed adversary than a non-nuclear armed adversary
(this case is often made in the context of why the US opted for
regime in Iraq and diplomacy in North Korea over their respective
5.2 One could also argue that nuclear weapons
may spread to countries that are either friendly to the UK or
that seek a robust military "defensive" solution to
the threat of regime change by the US-led Western alliance in
line with the government's own understanding of nuclear deterrence
(that nuclear weapons remain a necessary element of the capability
a state may need to deter threats from others possessing nuclear
5.3 It is also important to question why
continued possession of nuclear weapons by Britain is an appropriate
response to the risk of conflict with a nuclear-armed state brought
on by "other risks and challenges to future global stability".
One could equally argue that continued possession of nuclear weapons
by Britain could exacerbate future global instabilities by reinforcing
the perceived utility of nuclear threats as an appropriate response
to the types of risks and challenges outlined in paragraph 3-7
of the White Paper. This raises the question of:
Q: Why should the further spread of nuclear
weapons result in an increased risk of conflict involving a nuclear-armed
Q: Why is retention
of a nuclear capability considered an appropriate response to
the risk of conflict with a nuclear-armed state brought on by
"other risks and challenges to future global stability"?
5.4 The broad argument is that a British
nuclear arsenal "is an essential part of our insurance against
the risks and uncertainties of the future" (p 5). This "future
uncertainty argument" is powerful because the international
strategic environment undoubtedly will change over the next 30-50
years and history teaches us to expect such changes and surprises.
5.5 It is important to be clear, however,
that future uncertainty in context of British nuclear weapons
refers to the specific risk of the possible emergence of a strategic
nuclear threat to the UK and Western Europe, rather than just
the emergence of general international security threats per se
(in which nuclear weapons may play little or no role).
5.6 In essence the government is arguing
that the nature of the threat for which British nuclear weapons
may be needed in the future could be so great (threatening the
political survival of the UK and Western Europe) that even the
slightest risk of such a threat emerging is sufficient reason
to justify retention of Britain's existing nuclear weapons.
6. The government outlines three specific
areas of future "nuclear risk" to justify continued
possession of nuclear weapons:
The re-emergence of a "direct
nuclear threat to the UK and our NATO Allies". The use of
"re-emerge" implies the threat here is a resurgent Russia
(p 19 para 3-9).
The emergence of one or more
states with "a more limited nuclear capability but one that
poses a grave threat to our vital interests". The focus here
is likely Iran (p 19 para 3-10).
International terrorists "that
may try to acquire nuclear weapons" with the support of a
state (p 19 para 3-11).
6.1 These threat perceptions are of course
open to question. Nevertheless, the government does not clearly
state how the re-emergence of a Russian nuclear threat, the threat
of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism, or nuclear blackmail by
a "rogue" state such as Iran will be reduced or eliminated
through British possession, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.
The important question to ask is:
Q: What vital British interests will a resurgent
Russia or a nuclear-armed "rogue" threaten that can
be effectively addressed through the threat of a British nuclear
6.2 In addition:
Q: Under what future conditions might Britain
find itself subject to "nuclear blackmail" by a "rogue"'
state and why would a counter nuclear-threat be the most appropriate
6.3 One can argue that it is extremely unlikely
that Britain will put itself in a position whereby it might inspire
a genuine nuclear threat, "blackmail" or otherwise,
from a "rogue" state. The proliferation of nuclear weapons
will constrain British foreign and security policy options regardless
of whether the UK has a nuclear arsenal and depending on the objectives
of British foreign and security policy.
6.4 In the context of nuclear terrorism,
it is important to ask:
Q: Is it legitimate to threaten a nuclear
retaliatory attack that would in all likelihood kill at least
tens of thousands of people whose rulers may or may not have directly
or indirectly assisted the terrorist organisation responsible?
Q: How can nuclear
deterrence operate in such wholly uncertain circumstances? The
government needs to go beyond a statement of belief that "retention
of an effective nuclear deterrent by the UK has a role to play
in reducing the potential threat from state-sponsored nuclear-armed
terrorist" (p 20 box 3-1)
7. The government argues that "there
is no evidence or likelihood that others would follow the UK down
a unilateralist route" if it moved beyond nuclear weapons
and became a non-nuclear-weapon state (p 20 box 3-1)
7.1 This assertion here is that the British
decision will not cause other states to move beyond nuclear weapons
and will therefore have little or no effect on international nuclear
non-proliferation efforts. As the Prime Minister says in his Foreword
to the White Paper, those who question the decision to retain
nuclear weapons "need to prove that such a gesture [disarmament]
would change the minds of hardliners and extremists in countries
that are developing nuclear capabilities" (p 5).
7.2 This misses the point. Whilst a British
decision to retain or give up its nuclear arsenal is unlikely
to directly affect the nuclear weapons programmes of current and
suspected nuclear-weapon states, such a decision does not exist
in a vacuum. It will either reinforce or weaken the perceived
utility of nuclear weapons in international relations and thereby
either support or undermine the international nuclear non-proliferation
regime. The extent to which this will occur and the extent to
which it is considered to matter is open to question:
Q: How does the government conclude that
its decision to retain nuclear weapons well into the future will
have little or no impact on the broad salience of nuclear weapons
in international relations, and does it think this matters?
8. The government suggests that it will
retain nuclear weapons until there is "compelling evidence
that a nuclear threat to the UKs vital interests would not re-emerge"
in the future (p 20 box 3-1).
8.1 The White Paper discusses retention
of a nuclear arsenal in the context of protecting Britain's "vital
interests" without going into any detail about what it considers
those interests to be, other than the survival of the nation-state.
Without a more detailed account of the government's interpretation
of Britain's vital national interests, it is not possible to judge
whether a nuclear arsenal is required to defend them. It is therefore
important to ask:
Q: What are Britain's specific "vital
interests" that a nuclear arsenal is necessary to protect
and secure now and in the future?
9. The government's analysis of nuclear
threats and appropriate responses is conditioned by Britain's
9.1 The whole thrust of the White Paper
is based on presentation of a set of rationales and threat perceptions
to justify Britain's current and future possession of nuclear
weapons. The analysis is not objective but is but conditioned
by Britain's nuclear history and current nuclear status.
9.2 It is unlikely that a non-nuclear-weapon
state in Britain's secure geo-strategic position would conclude
that it required a nuclear capability to meet current and potential
nuclear threats. As Commodore Tim Hare, former MoD Director of
Nuclear policy, said in 2005, if Britain did not now have nuclear
weapons it is very unlikely that it would seek to acquire them.
9.3 In this context it is important to recognise
that arguments contrary to the government's rationale for retaining
a nuclear force beyond the lifetime of the current Vanguard SSBN
fleet by their very nature raise significant doubts as to the
necessity of retaining the current Trident force and its operational
9.4 Therefore the difficulty for the government
is that if it accepts even part of the case for not retaining
a post-Vanguard nuclear capability in the future it risks lending
legitimacy to arguments which can then be levelled at current
Trident forces and deploymentsa development it wants to
9.5 In order to avoid the debate on future
nuclear capabilities merging into a debate on current Trident
forces and deployments the government has little choice but to
apply the strategic rationale used to justify the current Trident
force to a post-Vanguard nuclear force.
9.6 The strategic rationale used to justify
the current Trident force is one of future strategic uncertainty.
This "threat" emerged to replace the blank space left
by the demise of the Soviet nuclear threat in the early 1990s
that had justified the procurement of Trident in the early 1980s.
A new strategic "threat" to justify Trident was needed
since most the expenditure for the Trident force had been met
by the end of the Cold War and cancellation of the system was
not considered an option.
9.7 The result is that rationales and threat
perceptions devised to fill the void left by the Soviet Union
in order to justify the expense and sophistication of the current
Trident system in the early 1990s are now being applied to the
current debate and are likely to persist for many decades after
the end of the Cold War.
10. The role of British nuclear weapons
in Britain's political-military relationship with US is studiously
10.1 The Labour government and wider British
political establishment argue that the UK should play a major
role in global affairs and that it is important for global stability
that it does so. In keeping with post-war British tradition, Prime
Minister Tony Blair is an ardent Atlanticist and firmly believes
that Britain's fortunes on the world stage, particularly its security,
necessitate a close relationship with Washington. 
10.2 The centrality of the US cannot be
overestimated in the British government's strategic security policy
and planning. Britain's defense doctrine is primarily, although
not exclusively, designed to support and influence US national
security policy and its military activities. From the government's
perspective, Britain's military capabilities, their interoperability
with US forces, and an enduring political commitment to US national
security objectives allow it to maintain its own security, have
a degree of influence in Washington, and remain a significant
force in shaping international security. The
importance of political and military credibility in Washington
through interoperability with US armed forces and participation
in US interventionist activity in the name of international stability
is clear. 
10.3 Britain views its nuclear capability
as an important power projection, deterrent and potential warfighting
tool that demonstrates and validates Britain's role as a powerful
and credible political and military ally. Britain's nuclear weapons
relationship with Washington is therefore considered an important
function of the closeness of the broader military and political
particular, Britain's possession of nuclear weapons facilitate
its willingness to support the US militarily in interventionist
activity that Britain believes will enhance international, and
therefore British, security. They provide a reassurance that,
in the process of interventionist engagement, regional powers
will not transgress major UK interests. 
10.4 By facilitating that support, Britain's
nuclear weapons serve a vital role in allowing Britain to remain
the Washington's primary military ally, thus ensuring to a considerable
extent Britain's enduring security. Being viewed as a major and
responsible world power and the closest ally of the US is intrinsic
to the defense and wider political establishment's enduring identity.
Challenges to that identity are likely to be vigorously resisted.
10.5 The relationship between Britain's
nuclear weapon capabilities, its broader foreign and security
policy and its political-military relationship with the US is
barely mentioned in the White Paper. It does emerge indirectly:
when the paper discusses British nuclear weapons in the context
of collective security of the "Euro-Atlantic area",
and given NATO's mandate in Afghanistan this must be taken to
include "out of area" defence of collective security
interests (p 18 para 3-4 bullet 4); when it argues that nuclear
proliferation could "fundamentally constrain our foreign
and security policy options", most likely in the context
of interventionist activity (p 19 para 3-10); when it suggests
that Britain will continue to engage in activity that could subject
it nuclear blackmail by a "rogue" state or state-sponsored
nuclear terrorism (p 19 para 3-10, 3-11); when it argues that
any future nuclear capability must be of global reach "to
deter threats anywhere in the world" (p 22 para 4-4); and
finally in the fact that Britain relies heavily on US material
assistance to support its nuclear arsenal.
10.6 The White Paper states that "the
US has never sought to exploit our procurement relationship in
this area as a means to influence UK foreign policy" (p 23
para 4-7). In the context of the above that statement is beside
the point: It is the UK that pursues a strong relationship with
America to ensure continued possession of a nuclear deterrent
that in part facilitates its military alliance with, and status
in, Washington that is in turn seen to guarantee Britain's long-term
15 January 2007
72 Tim Hare, "What Next for Trident?", RUSI
Journal, April 2005, p 30.) Back
Tony Blair, "Britain's Place in the World", Prime Minister's
speech at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Leadership Conference,
7 January 2003. Available at http://www.pmo.gov.uk/output/Page1765.asp
accessed on 16 March 2006. Back
UK International Priorities, UK Foreign and Commonwealth
Office, December 2003. Cited in "UK White Papers on defence
and Foreign Policy", Disarmament Diplomacy, No 75
(January/February 2004); Delivering Security in a Changing
World, Ministry of Defence White Paper, December 2003, p 8. Back
Delivering Security in a Changing World, Ministry of Defence
White Paper, December 2003, p 8; and Paul Rogers, "Big boats
and bigger skimmers: determining Britain's role in the Long War",
International Affairs, Vol 82. No 4, 2006, p 651. Back
Remarks by British Army Major General Charles Vyvyan, then Defence
Attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, in Charles
Heyman, "The Jane's Interview", Jane's Defence Weekly,
2 July 1997, p 32. Back
Brad Roberts, Multipolarity and Stability, Institute for
Defense Analysis, November 2000. Roberts states that "A good
argument can be made that the primary function of nuclear weapons
here is not deterrence, but self-assurance", p 13. Back