Memorandum from Michael MccGwire
RUSH TO JUDGEMENT
The Defence White Paper on Trident Replacement
sets out a policy decided long agoa policy the Government
seeks to hustle through Parliament by claiming that the decision
must be taken "now", lest there be "a future break
in our deterrent protection."
The urgency is contrived. Information in the
body of the White Paper indicates that in programmatic terms,
such a decision does not have to be reached until some time in
2008, allowing the "substantial period of public and parliamentary
debate" that the Prime Minister says he is looking forward
Such a debate is particularly important because
there may be more to the Trident question than meets the eye.
One of the unexplained anomalies of the Government's position
on replacement has been its failure to do other than talk in generalities
about Britain's need for nuclear weapons, despite our being unusually
secure off North West Europe. Officialdom refuses to discuss the
circumstances in which nuclear weapons might be used, claiming
it is advantageous to keep one's opponent guessing and asserting
(incorrectly) that uncertainty enhances deterrence;
and one gathers that the Ministry's military planners no longer
"test" future threat scenarios.
The White Paper does little better in specifying
future threats to Britain's interests.
It is, however, more forthcoming about the geographic scope of
British requirements, which include taking action "to maintain
regional and global security" [3-10]. Meanwhile, Britain
should retain its capability "to deter threats anywhere in
the world" [4-4]. It would seem that, in an oblique way,
the White Paper is talking about threats to our attempts "to
maintain regional and global security," the latter being
a euphemism for the global projection of Western conventional
These are ambitious goals,
particularly in a world where relative power rankings are on the
move. It assumes access to US satellite targeting and foresees
Britain providing nuclear backup to the forces of "international
order" for the next 50 years. It might be thought the Government
was trying to nail down a policy that will commit us to the role
of nuclear outrider to US global policy through the 2020s and
Those goals are a long way from "sunk costs"the
justification that underlies popular opinion about our nuclear
capability. "As we already have it, we might as well keep
it. Who knows, it might come in handy and, anyway, "better-safe-than-sorry."
A slim argument for such an awesome capability,
but that is how most people think
Let us accept that, in terms of cost, convenience
and professional competence, if it were decided to replace Britain's
nuclear capability, it would make sense to develop and deploy
a modernised version of the existing Trident system. Whether we
chose to build three or four submarines would have no international
But that is a peripheral issue. The central
question is whether it is in Britain's wider national interests
to retain a nuclear capability, and this requires a comparison
of the relative costs and benefits. The primary emphasis needs
to be on political interests, with particular attention being
paid to opportunity coststhe costs of policies and procurement
foregone as a result of Britain's nuclear status.
Rather than undertake such analysis, the Defence
White Paper uses the crutch of "unpredictability". Not
only does this divert attention from dangers that are all too
predictable, such as nuclear proliferation, regional arms racing,
and inadvertent or accidental nuclear war, but it encourages the
kind of worst-case analysis that drove the Soviet-American nuclear
arms race in the 1960-90 period.
Traditionally, the benefits claimed for a British
nuclear capability are "enhanced security" and "political
status". The White Paper denies the latter is still a factor
and we can agree that it is most unlikely that Britain, a founding
member of all the best international clubs, would lose political
status (or its permanent seat on the Security Council) if it scrapped
its nuclear weapons.
As for security, Britain's nuclear capability
added nothing to alliance security during the Cold War.
Today, its contribution to security remains nebulous and the Government
has yet to demonstrate its relevance in the future.
In sum, the benefits to Britain of its nuclear
capability are meagre at best and mainly hypothetical. What then
of costs? The financial burden is not really significant (about
5% of the defence vote), but the need for technological support
is largely responsible for Britain's unhealthy political dependence
on America, which must be counted as a cost.
But what about opportunity coststhe costs
of policies and procurement foregone because of choosing to retain
Britain's nuclear capability? For example, the £1 billion
spent annually on Trident would yield a substantial operational
dividend were it to be invested in our over-stretched and under-equipped
Land Forces (ground with air support), which have borne the brunt
of British military operations since the end of the Cold War.
And if it were decided to replace Trident, that opportunity cost
would steadily increase to £2-3 billion a year during the
20 year procurement cycle.
The most important opportunity-costs are, however,
political. And the more significant things that Britain could
do and achieve (if it were not a nuclear-weapon state) relate
to its Role in the world and, more immediately, to the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is increasingly in jeopardy.
At the time of the Treaty's inception in 1968
and for the next 25 years, the NPT was immensely important and
unexpectedly successful. This was largely due to the nature of
the Cold War world with its two camps, client states and the superpowers'
common interest. The Treaty was, however, inherently discriminatory,
and would remain effective only as long as the non-nuclear states
believed it was, on balance, fair and that it served their long-term
interests. Fairness is important because its correlateresentmentis
a powerful and destructive motivator.
Come the end of the Cold War, the nuclear-weapon
states sought the indefinite extension of the NPT. There was significant
opposition to this proposal from the non-nuclear states, but,
in return for a range of inducements, the indefinite extension
was agreed at the 1995 Treaty Review Conference. This was subject
to a pledge by the nuclear-weapon states that the five-yearly
Conferences would provide an engine for progress towards the goal
of nuclear elimination, as set out in Article 6 of the Treaty.
That promise was explicitly reaffirmed in the
final statement of the 2000 Review Conference but, by then, the
nuclear-weapons states were already walking back on their earlier
promises. In 2001, the incoming Bush administration made clear
its disdain for these and other arms control negotiations, and
the 2005 Review Conference could not even agree a final statement.
Meanwhile, the tacit pledge that the nuclear
states would avoid the resort to nuclear weapons has been replaced
by the increasing normalisation of such weapons. Washington talks
about using them in response to biological and chemical attack
and is developing small warheads that can be used more readily
("useable nukes"). Britain and France talk in general
terms of "sub-strategic" systems. In other words, having
achieved the indefinite extension of the NPT, the nuclear-weapon
states are not observing their side of the bargain, and America
(which determines the nuclear "weather") has explicitly
woven the nuclear option into its operational doctrine.
These double standards contribute to the post
9/11 image of the "West against the Rest", and a cynical
view is that the NPT (and the associated Nuclear Weapon Free Zones)
is now a convenient instrument of US foreign policy. It ensures
that US conventional forces will not be deterred or hampered by
the threat of a nuclear response, and can be used to justify punitive
action against any "rogue state" that might be seeking
such a capability.
This perception conflates dissatisfaction over
the implementation of the NPT with the wider dissatisfactions
arising from the rich/poor and North/South divides, from the socio-economic
circumstances that have nourished fundamentalism, and from the
polarising effect of Bush's "war on terrorism", with
its simplistic slogan that "you are either with us or against
us". These different dissatisfactions each have their own
fault lines, but in all cases the NATO nuclear states find themselves
on one side and the "dissatisfied" on the other, and
the NPT is increasingly seen as part of a larger Western conspiracy.
It is failing the crucial test of being seen as "fair".
More importantly, increasing numbers of states
are beginning to question whether the treaty still serves their
long-term interests; the post-Gulf War dictumthat if you
take on America, you need a nuclear capabilitywas seemingly
borne out in 2003, when the US attacked Iraq, but not North Korea.
This outline gives a taste of the problems facing
the NPT and has not addressed a range of questions, including
how America would react if the treaty began to unravel. And since
Washington believes that the problem lies with who possesses nuclear
weapons, rather than the weapons themselves, how are we to decide
who fits which category? The answers are not obvious, but one
thing is certain: as a NATO nuclear-weapon state, Britain is in
no position to affect the deteriorating trend.
But what if Britain renounced its capability?
The demonstration that Britain took its obligations
under Article 6 of the NPT seriously would be a step in the direction
of fairness and away from the double standards that undermine
the treaty. Britain could address questions such as how the international
system should react to the different categories of nuclear and
potentially nuclear states? On what criteria are some states allowed
to produce their own enriched uranium and stockpiles of plutonium,
while others are forbidden any kind of enrichment facility? Who
is a "good" or a "bad" state (and who decides)?
Britain could help devise a political process and structure to
accommodate threshold, virtual, declared and de facto nuclear
states as well as the original "treaty" states.
It is not suggested that Britain's renouncement
would affect the policies of the existing nuclear-weapon states.
Nor is it likely to influence those non-nuclear states that are
already determined for their own separate reasons to acquire such
a capability. It is, however, possible that British renouncement
might be a significant consideration in the calculations of the
remaining threshold states; and where "keeping up with the
Joneses" was an important factor in determining military
requirements, it would provide an alternative policy option. But
those possibilities are not the issue.
The demonstration effect works both ways and
my concern is for the negative aspects of Britain's stance. Safe
off western Europe, insisting that nuclear weapons are essential
to our national security, Britain is a standing incitement to
nuclear proliferation. We may think we have a global role that
justifies our special status, but that is not how the rest of
the world sees us. With some 40 states already technologically
capable of producing nuclear weapons, we need to ask: "which
is the greater threat to Britain's future well being?" Is
it unspecified dangers in some distant future, derived from "worst-case"
analyses of hypothetical scenarios in an unpredictable world?
Or is it nuclear proliferation in the near future, leading to
regional arms racing and a world of 40 or more nuclear states,
with precautions against theft and misuse of widely-varying effectiveness?
In terms of British policy, we face mutually
exclusive choices. Either we concentrate our efforts on halting
and reversing nuclear proliferation. Or we retain a nuclear capability,
as it might come in handy in the unforeseeable future. We cannot
To the question "but what about the other
nuclear states?" a glance at the map will show that (apart
from France) only Britain is in a position to renounce its nuclear
capability without jeopardising its "supreme national interests".
Given our de-facto rationale of "sunk costs", supreme
national interests don't really enter the picture. Nor do we have
to consider France, which has a very different history and is
hypersensitive about status, which the White Paper claims is not
an issue for Britain. Meanwhile, one of the attractions of the
proposed policy is that the decision to renounce nuclear weapons
does not depend on negotiations and lies entirely with London.
By such action, Britain would demonstrate its
belief that nuclear weapons are not essential to political status,
nor are they considered necessary for our national security. We
would be in a position to resist the "normalisation"
of nuclear ordnance, to reassert the "nuclear taboo"
and to argue publicly against the further development of nuclear
weapons. And we would be able to highlight the inevitability of
nuclear arms racing and its pernicious effects on international
relations, while stressing the serious danger of accidental and/or
A British decision to renounce its nuclear weapons
would enable fundamentally new ways of thinking about the NPT,
opening up unexplored avenues and opportunities for fresh initiatives
and new alliances in a field that is characterised by patronising
attitudes, entrenched positions, frustration, bad faith and distrust.
Britain would automatically assume a crucial role in discussions
and negotiations on what needs to be done and what (if any) decision-making
structure would be required.
Which brings us to the opportunity-costs of
our nuclear capability in terms of Britain's role in the world.
The role a state chooses (or settles for) ultimately
defines the national interests that need protecting or promoting
(the basis of foreign policy) and the parameters of its security
concerns (the basis of defence policy). Britain's role was not
discussed in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review; nor had it been
properly discussed since Suez, when we staked all on the "special
relationship". After the Falklands, grateful for Sidewinders
and satellite imagery, Britain focused on the role of compliant
ally. Since 1991, Britain has been seen as a spear-carrier for
Pax Americana, a role it adopted without public debate.
Most recently, Britain has settled for the role of pillion passenger.
Like our nuclear capability, our self-appointed
role as America's closest ally and our outdated claim to provide
a bridge across the Atlantic have opportunity costs; for example,
the opportunity to be a fully committed member of the European
Union. But there is an even larger opportunity waiting to be exploited:
non-nuclear Britain as a leading member of a loose but growing
coalition of major and middle powers, who see themselves as natural
partners of America and share most of its values, but reserve
the right to criticise its foreign policy, particularly in respect
to the NPT and the role of nuclear weapons.
That criticism took substantive form in 1998,
when the "New Agenda Coalition" successfully challenged
the NPT Review process. Since then, other countries have been
prepared to break ranks and, in the last five years, some 20 members
of the wider western alliance have shown that on occasions they
are willing to go against the "NATO" line on nuclear
weapons. These include Germany, Italy, Brazil and Japan as well
as Australia, Canada and New Zealand and, of course, the Nordics.
These are not "great" powers (as the
term is generally understood) and collectively they cannot match
the political clout of the United States. But "balancing"
is not the aim. The aim is to provide a rallying point for "western"
world opinion and for those who subscribed to Bush Snr's talk
of "a new world order" in 1991-92, but do not share
Bush Jnr's belief that democracy can emerge from the barrel of
a gun. During the last 20 years, these countries and other members
of the implicit coalition have in their different ways made significant
contributions to the well-being of the international system. Particularly
in respect to "soft power" and their support for UN
objectives, the sum of their parts is substantial. If Britain
threw its weight behind their efforts, it would be significantly
The current thrust of US foreign policy is not
some passing aberration; it is the product of the strategic reassessment
that had been under way since 1992. The normalisation of nuclear
weapons, the withdrawal from the ABM treaty, the push for missile
defence, the plan to achieve dominance of space (explicitly echoing
Britain's command of the sea in the 19th Century)all these
programmes have their roots in the Clinton years. It was those
decisions that allowed Bush to declare that US forces would "be
strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing
a military build-up" to challenge US military powera
gauntlet that may discourage a symmetrical arms race, but will
accelerate the search for other ways to counter America's global
In these circumstances, the balance of costs
and benefits argue strongly in favour of Britain renouncing its
nuclear capability rather than replacing Trident. The potential
benefits include: restoring the viability of the NPT and reducing
the pressure on other states to "go nuclear"; halting
the normalisation of nuclear weapons and reasserting the nuclear
taboo; regaining possession of Britain's foreign policy and increasing
its stature in the world community; helping to heal the breach
between "the West and the Rest"; and enhancing Britain's
ground/air expeditionary capability.
A prerequisite for enjoying those benefits is
a change in British thinking. Without losing the ability to work
as a reliable and effective partner of America when our interests
coincide, Britain must abandon its addiction to the one-sided
Special Relationship, which has incurred greater costs than benefits
since World War II.
It must also cast aside the beguiling Cold War illusion of "deterrence"
as an all-purpose answer to unknown future threats. After 50 years
of political indoctrination, Britain's nuclear capability has
acquired a Totemic quality. It has become a national Ju Ju that
in some unexplained way will shield us from danger in an unpredictable
future. It is not a weaponit is a security blanket.
The Government has a more instrumental view,
but having read the White Paper one wonders whether they, too,
are running on the inertia of Cold War policies and the ill-founded
belief that "nuclear deterrence" is cost free.
Given its reluctance to discuss the circumstances where and when
the concept of deterrence might apply, one wonders whether the
Government has fully weighed the ultimate consequences of a global
policy based on a readiness to inflict nuclear punishment. One
thing is certain. Deterrence theory drove the Cold War nuclear
arms race and there is every reason to suppose that the British
will encourage the global proliferation of nuclear weapons.
PS A final pointthere is no middle
way. The choice for Britain is between renouncing its nuclear
capability or continuing as a nuclear-weapon state. The issue
is whether it possesses nuclear weapons of any kind, not the size
and shape of its arsenal.
The national and international benefits will only accrue if Britain
abjures nuclear weapons completely.
5 February 2007
110 Quotations from the Prime Minister's Foreword
to the Paper. Numbers in [-] refer to paras in the body of the
The 2007 decision-deadline in the White Paper derives from the
estimate in the Paper that "it might take around 17 years
from the initiation of detailed concept work to achieve the first
operational patrol in 2024." [1.7] But these are merely planners'
preferences, and there is a lot of wriggle room within that period,
such as initiating concept work before the final decision is reached,
tightening the planning, procurement and production timetable,
reducing the tempo of current SSBN operations, and so on. These
and other measures (such as greater urgency) could reduce the
lead-time by 12-18 months. Back
Uncertainty encourages risk-taking, as we saw with the seizure
of the Falklands in 1982 and Kuwait in 1990. Classical deterrence
theory requires that the threatened punishment be certain in terms
of military capability and political will. During the US debate
on "launch-on-warning" vs" "ride-out"
during the 1970s, the possible utility of "uncertainty"
was raised, but it does not feature in classical theory. Back
Projecting today's latent threats 20-55 years ahead (ie the
re-emergence of a Russian and/or Chinese threat and the emergence
of new nuclear actors), the Paper postulates the risk of a major
direct threat to the UK, or a lesser (but none the less grave)
threat to Britain's vital interests. It does not indicate the
substance or the circumstances of such threats or what those interests
might be. Back
Reading as if written by Nuclear Planners committed to the Special
Relationship, this aspect of the White Paper adumbrates a foreign
policy that has yet to be debated by the British establishment,
let alone the people. Back
It would seem that even Sir Michael Quinlan subscribes to a
carefully nuanced and more sophisticated version of this conclusion.
See "The Future of United Kingdom nuclear weapons: shaping
the debate", International Affairs, July 2006, 82:4,
pp 634-5. Back
Scaling up from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a single Trident
has the notional capacity to cause 20 million instantaneous
This resulted in the grotesque totals of some 12,000 strategic
weapons on each side. Back
The assertion would be disputed by the members of the Defence
and related establishments (a powerful bureaucratic force), who
believe that their influence with US colleagues depends largely
on Britain's nuclear status. Back
In the early 1960s, as a student at the US Armed Forces Staff
College and then a SACLANT war-planner, I gained the strong impression
that the British capability was seen as a fifth wheel, an impediment
rather than a contribution to the US deterrent. The contemporary
claim that the British capability complicated Soviet planning
by introducing a second decision centre has not been borne out
by Soviet nuclear experts who have talked with Lorna Arnold and
with David Holloway, the latter a specialist in the field. Holloway
concluded that neither the British nor the French capability worried
the Soviets. In the 1960s, they had been concerned that the Germans
might gain control of such weapons. Back
The belief that "nuclear weapons kept the peace" during
the Cold War reflects the Western line that we faced "the
relentless expansion of Soviet communism", which was "set
on military world domination". However, in 2002 the White
House informed us that what we had actually faced was "a
generally status quo, risk averse adversary." The National
Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington
September 2002, p 15). Back
The true picture is obscured because at the "staff"
level British officers and officials undoubtedly have a significant
influence. It is, however, different at the national level, where
policy-making has been likened to a board game played by the White
House, Pentagon, State and Capitol Hill, and domestic factors
or electoral considerations usually determine the outcome. Britain
is only one of a number of client states, many of whom have powerful
constituencies within America. Because of our loyalty, British
acquiescence is now taken for granted over a wide range of issues
and, if not publicly denied, helps reassure doubters in the US
Foreign Policy Community about the wisdom of policies we ourselves
do not agree with. Back
For a practitioner's viewpoint, see Lee Butler "At the
end of the journey: the risks of Cold War thinking in a new era",
International Affairs, July 2006, 82:4, pp 763-69. General
Butler USAF was CinC Strategic Air Command and CinC Strategic
Command (1991-94). The article is based on a speech he gave at
the State of the World Forum, SanFranciscoin 1996. For the hidden
costs of deterrence, see MccGwire, "Nuclear Deterrence",
ibid, pp 771-784, originally a paper commissioned by the Canberra
Commission in August 1996, which extended the argument in "Deterrence:
the problem, not the solution" first published in 1985-86. Back
The term used by the Prime Minister in his Foreword... Back
Decommissioning the submarines and placing the warheads in monitored
storage would not meet the requirement. For opponents of Trident
replacement, the "middle way" is appealing because it
provides an arena for negotiation and compromise, and minimises
confrontation with HMG. It also appeals to HMG, whose bottom line
is to retain the R&D, production, logistical and operational
infrastructure to support a continuing nuclear capability, whose
precise configuration is open to political negotiation. Back