Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

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 it operate?

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 WMD programmes).

  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 weapons).

  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 state?

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 attack?

  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 response?

  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 nuclear status.

  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. [72]

  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 posture today.

  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 deployments—a development it wants to avoid.

  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 avoided.

  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. [73]

  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. [74]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. [75]

  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 relationship. [76]In 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. [77]

  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 security.

15 January 2007

72   Tim Hare, "What Next for Trident?", RUSI Journal, April 2005, p 30.) Back

73   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 accessed on 16 March 2006. Back

74   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

75   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

76   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

77   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

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