Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from Michael MccGwire


  The Defence White Paper on Trident Replacement sets out a policy decided long ago—a 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."[110]

  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 to.[111]

  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;[112] 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[113]. 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 force.

  These are ambitious goals,[114] 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 beyond.


  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."[115] A slim argument for such an awesome capability[116], 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 significance.

  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 costs—the 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.[117]


  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[118] 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.[119] Today, its contribution to security remains nebulous and the Government has yet to demonstrate its relevance in the future.[120]

  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 costs—the 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 correlate—resentment—is 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 dictum—that if you take on America, you need a nuclear capability—was 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 do both.

  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 inadvertent war.

  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 greater.

  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 power—a gauntlet that may discourage a symmetrical arms race, but will accelerate the search for other ways to counter America's global capability.

  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.[121] 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 weapon—it 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.[122] 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 "deterrent system"[123] will encourage the global proliferation of nuclear weapons.

  PS  A final point—there 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.[124] 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 Paper. Back

111   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

112   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

113   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

114   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

115   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

116   Scaling up from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a single Trident has the notional capacity to cause 20 million instantaneous deaths. Back

117   This resulted in the grotesque totals of some 12,000 strategic weapons on each side. Back

118   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

119   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

120   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

121   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

122   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

123   The term used by the Prime Minister in his Foreword... Back

124   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

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