3 Nuclear deterrence |
What threats does the nuclear
47. The 2006 White Paper on the Future of the
UK's nuclear deterrent set out four deterrent roles for UK nuclear
To deter against the re-emergence of a major direct
nuclear threat to the UK or our NATO allies, and to prevent major
war which threatens the British state;
To deter against the use of weapons of mass destruction
by a rogue state during a regional intervention in which UK forces
were involved, allowing the UK to continue to be able to intervene
militarily around the world without fear of "nuclear blackmail"
To deter against state-sponsored acts of nuclear
To act as an insurance against emerging threats to
the UK's vital interests and the uncertainties and risks of the
48. In respect of the first deterrent role, the
Nuclear Information Service told us that Russia or China were
the only nations that could pose such a threat to the UK in the
foreseeable future, but concluded that "the possibility that
Russia or China would at some time over the next fifty years pose
a direct military threat to the UK represents an unlikely and
exceptionally worst case scenario [...] It is time for the government
to accept that Russia and China do not pose a military threat
to the UK and that they are now becoming our economic and strategic
Nick Ritchie, University of York, acknowledged continuing tensions
between both countries and the West, and acknowledged that some
political crises might have military dimensions, but concluded
that it was "barely conceivable that UK nuclear deterrent
threats and consideration of using nuclear weapons against Russia
or China will ever be part of the solution to future confrontations".
49. However, Franklin C Miller, a former Special
Assistant at the White House and Senior Director for Defense Policy
and Arms Control at the National Security Council, has argued,
in contrast, that calls from the UK and the US for the worldwide
elimination of nuclear weapons "has not drawn obvious support
from France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea
or Iran" and that the current Russian leadership placed a
"very high reliance on nuclear weapons", and had threatened
nuclear use against its neighbours, including running an exercise
which simulated nuclear weapons attacks on Poland. 
He added that Russian nuclear forces were put on a state of alert
during the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 to guard against
"NATO adventurism". Mr Miller concluded that "Russia's
nuclear weapons are coercive weapons and the Russian Government
has been using them for such effect". He accordingly argued
strongly for the retention of the UK nuclear deterrent. We note
that the recent Russian intervention in Crimea was accompanied
by a test of a Russian inter-continental ballistic missile, again
suggesting that Russia was prepared to use its nuclear capabilities
as a form of leverage in global relations.
50. The second deterrent role envisages deterring
a rogue state from using weapons of mass destruction to allow
for a regional intervention. The Nuclear Information Service argued
If the survival of a rogue regime armed with weapons
of mass destruction was genuinely under threat, military intervention
would be an unpredictable high-risk option, with a disproportionate
risk that the regime might use its weapons in a last-ditch attempt
to survive. 
Ritchie noted that the dangerous "asymmetry"
of the stakes where the survival of a nuclear-armed rogue state
was threatened would make it unlikely that UK nuclear deterrent
threats would prevent the use of nuclear weapons by that state.
51. The third of the threats that the White Paper
said the nuclear capability was designed to deter was state sponsored
acts of terrorism. We noted in Chapter 2 the challenges to deterrence
of attack by a state that was confident in concealing its traces,
either acting through a proxy or by other means. UNA-UK told us
that the nuclear deterrent provided no benefit in managing the
asymmetric threats posed by terrorist groups or by unstable states
within which or near to which the UK had resource interests.
These frail states cannot be solidified by the UK's
nuclear deterrent, and the deterrent cannot be used as leverage
or as "a big stick" towards irregular forces within
such states [...]. Al-Shabab does not feel threatened by any state's
nuclear weapons, and the only time Al-Qaeda cogitates over any
state's nuclear deterrent, is possibly to consider how it might
compromise the security of it.
52. Our predecessor Committee noted in its report
on The Future of the UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the
Strategic Context that
The most pressing threat currently facing the UK
is that of international terrorism. Witnesses to our inquiry overwhelmingly
argued that the strategic nuclear deterrent could serve no useful
or practical purpose in countering this kind of threat.
Professor Hennessy argued that the nuclear deterrent
was never designed to be a deterrent against terrorism.
53. A number of submissions to this inquiry argued
that nuclear deterrence was only of relevance when dealing with
rational actors. Ward Wilson, Senior Fellow at the British American
Security Information Council, argued that "deterrence fails
against madmen" and that "it only works with those who
stop and consider rationally the costs of what they're about to
in responding to the charge that nuclear weapons are of no use
against "non-deterrable" terrorist threats, Dr Stocker
told us that there are few genuinely irrational actors.
He believed instead that "It is rather that not all rationalities
are the same. It all depends on an individual's, a group's or
a state's underlying assumptions, perceptions, beliefs and values".
As noted in paragraph 16 above, Dr Stocker also argues that few
threats are genuinely non-state or non-territorial in origin.
54. General (retd) Sir Hugh Beach argued that
nuclear weapons had provided no discernible benefit to the UK
and certainly provided no protection against terrorism.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers noted that none of the scenarios that
might necessitate independent use of nuclear capabilities were
currently plausible and that the UK was "safer than it has
ever been from the threat of conventional military attack on its
homeland by another state".
However, he cautioned that it was "not possible to predict
the shape of the international strategic environment in the 2030s
or 2040s. And the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons
and related technologies increases the risk that, at some point,
a direct threat to the UK might emerge".
55. The fourth purpose of the nuclear deterrent,
to act as potential retaliation against emerging threats, has
been characterised as the "nuclear hedge". Professor
Chalmers described the argument of the nuclear "hedge"
as "while there may be no credible threat today that justifies
a national nuclear deterrent, the country should hedge against
the possibility that such a threat may re-emerge in future".
56. Dr Ritchie argued that nuclear weapons provided
no answer to the types of threats to UK interests that were likely
to arise from future uncertainty. He said that
Such threats are likely to be messy and arise from
an interdependent mix of environmental, economic, military and
political sources of insecurity. These include the effects of
climate change, mass poverty and global economic injustice, global
pandemic diseases, mass migration, and refugee flows, weak and
failing states, international terrorism and asymmetric warfare,
the spread of WMD and advanced conventional military technologies,
ethnic and sectarian nationalism and competition over access to
key resources such as oil and water.
He added that the "apparent certainties"
of nuclear deterrence provided a "false comfort" in
looking at the diversity of future threats.
57. We note, however, that while
the potential range of emergent threats is significant, they do
not preclude either the re-emergence of tensions with an existing
nuclear power, nor the emergence of a new power whose interests
are inimical to those of the United Kingdom with the capacity
to deliver a CBRN attack on the UK or its interests.
58. The fourth of the deterrent
roles identified in the White Paper is to provide potential retaliation
against threats that may emerge over the next 50 years. Nuclear
proliferation is not under control and many of the sources of
future insecurity could in themselves contribute to state-on-state
conflict , creating an ever more unstable, and increasingly nuclear-armed,
future strategic context. The assessment of future threats is
as important as the assessment of current threats in considering
the case for the nuclear deterrent.
The opportunity cost of the nuclear
59. Dr Ritchie drew attention to the "opportunity
costs" of proceeding with Trident replacement, questioning
"whether procuring another generation of strategic nuclear
weaponry is an appropriate investment given the types of security
threats the UK is likely to face over the coming decade".
CND concluded that money spent on nuclear deterrence was not spent
on combating other threats and a decision not to renew the weapons
system could therefore be spent improving other means of deterring
threats more effectively.
60. One point to note in evaluating the opportunity
cost argument is that the current SSN fleet of nuclear powered
submarines, a key element in the Navy's conventional deterrence
capability, relies heavily on the research and development investment
in the nuclear-armed SSBN fleet and on the benefits of technological
exchange. A decision
to dispense with the continuous at sea nuclear deterrent (CASD)
would be likely to sharply increase costs in the conventional
SSN fleet and may call into question the UK's ability to support
and run a viable SNN programme.
61. Dr Rebecca Johnson, Director of the Acronym
Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy argued that reliance on nuclear
weapons for deterrence had "skewed thinking" about deterrence
and "will inevitably direct military, political, economic
etc. resources towards doctrines, strategies and weapons that
may not be appropriate or effective for the desired purposes,
or even be counterproductive for security".
The Nuclear Information Service called on the UK to focus more
on tackling risks at source and taking steps to improve resilience
and self-sufficiency. 
62. The MoD stated that
Effective deterrence is predicated upon being able
to put oneself in the shoes of those whom one is seeking to deter.
This is likely to require significant up-front investment in intelligence,
engagement (where possible) and in cultural awareness.
63. The operation of a nuclear
deterrent clearly does not obviate the need for substantial investment
in other approaches to security, including the diplomatic, and
measures to tackle risks at source. As we have noted, the nuclear
deterrent cannot be used to deter all threats to national security.
Given the importance of communication to the concept of deterrence,
investment in diplomatic and intelligence assets must be integral
to the UK's security apparatus. However, it would be naive of
us to assume that a decision not to invest in the nuclear deterrent
would release substantial funds for investment in other forms
of security. We believe that the decision on the retention of
the nuclear deterrent, and whether its retention is still merited
as a means of deterring existential threats to the UK, should
be made on its own merits, rather than on the basis of what else
could be bought with the money saved.
Is there a need for the UK to
retain an independent capability within NATO?
64. General Beach also argued that Trident was
not a genuinely independent capability as it was still reliant
on the US for operation and maintenance and it would be inconceivable
that it might be used in the face of US opposition.
In response to the previous Committee's report on the Future of
the UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the Strategic Context, the
MoD stated that
The UK Trident system is fully operationally independent
of the US or any other state. Decision-making and use of the system
remains entirely sovereign to the UK. Only the Prime Minister
can authorise the use of the UK's nuclear deterrent, even if the
missiles are to be fired as part of a NATO response.[...] All
the command and control procedures are totally independent.
65. Professor Hennessy told us that, once a decision
had been taken to get rid of the UK's nuclear capability, it would
be practically impossible to reacquire it (in terms of the effort
to reacquire the technology and skills lost and the money required).
Robert Gates, former US Defense Secretary, recently warned the
UK against nuclear disarmament. 
66. Franklin D Miller said that, during the Cold
War, the UK and US Governments "believed that "two centres
of [nuclear] decision" complicated Soviet decision making
thus enhancing deterrence". He added that
Russian nuclear policy and acts of nuclear saber-rattling
and intimidation make fairly self-evident that the need for "the
second centre of decision" is still with us and will be for
a long time. Although the US government remains bound to the defense
of the United Kingdom by treaties and by history, we cannot be
100% confident that an aggressive Russian leadership will recognise
that the US would provide a nuclear umbrella over the UK in a
future crisis if the UK did not possess nuclear weapons. .[...]
Faced with a credible independent British deterrent, however,
we can be confident that that same Russian government would understand
that there could be no possible scenario in which an attack on
the United Kingdom would not draw a retaliatory blow - and thus
it would be deterred from such an attack in the first place.
67. General Beach also questioned why the UK
needed its own nuclear capability if the US nuclear guarantee
was watertight. Professor
Chalmers notes that the Government argues that
The existence of an "independent centre"
of decision-making can enhance the credibility of NATO nuclear
deterrence in circumstances where an opponent may doubt the willingness
of the US to use its own nuclear weapons.
Implications of advanced conventional
weapons for nuclear deterrence
68. Dr Andrew Futter and Dr Benjamin Zala, University
of Leicester, noted that the US was shifting to more advanced
conventional weapons, including both an advanced offensive capability
(Prompt Global Strike (PGS)) and defensive capability (Ballistic
Missile Defence (BMD)); and argued that the US administration's
intention was to create the conditions in which its nuclear arsenal
could be reduced, signalling an intention to eventually disarm
its nuclear capability.
69. These developments have substantial implications
for the concept of deterrence and the ability of a state to exert
some control over the escalation of a conflict. In the event of
conflict between two or more nuclear-armed states, the ability
to control the escalation of conflict relies on the ability to
deploy a range of capabilities to escalate threats up to the point
where the continued existence of the state is in question and
a nuclear exchange becomes credible enough for nuclear deterrence
to work. The proposed US PGS capability would provide a threat
that was both extremely prompt, which would usefully increase
the risk in an adversary's calculations, and a conventional capability
that could be credibly used at a lower threshold of provocation.
It could also be argued that it would be easier to mobilise public
support for such a response, as it would not require commitment
of forces on the ground and would not have the same indiscriminate
destructive impact as a nuclear weapon, further enhancing its
70. However, it could also be argued that such
a threat could lower the nuclear threshold, as some proposed means
of delivery may be indistinguishable from the delivery of a nuclear
capability. In December 2013, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister
warned the US that it would be prepared to respond to a conventional
attack by PGS using nuclear weapons.
71. It is possible to foresee
an environment in which the core role of nuclear deterrence -
to protect a state from attack - is achieved by the deployment
of advanced conventional weapons, providing both offensive and
defensive capability. However, we are not yet in a position to
evaluate any viable technical options. This will be a matter which
our successor Committee may wish to examine further.
72. It is not the purpose of
this report to re-open the question of the future of the UK's
nuclear deterrent. We did not re-examine the evidence in the detail
that our predecessor Committee did. The 2015 National Security
Strategy will identify a new order of threats and we will look
to the 2015 Defence and Security Review to identify which of these
threats the nuclear deterrent will be expected to deter.
37 The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent,
Cm6994, December 2006. Back
Ev w28 Back
Ev w34 Back
Franklin C Miller speech to Chatham House on the Future of the
UK's nuclear deterrent: a view from the US, 27 May 2010. Back
Ev w29 Back
Ev w34. Back
Ev w17 Back
Eighth Report of the Committee, Session 2005-06, paragraph 88. Back
Ev w5 Back
Ev w41 Back
Ev w13 Back
Ev w6 Back
Small Nuclear Forces, Five Perspectives, RUSI Whitehall Report
3-11, page 19. Back
Small Nuclear Forces, Five Perspectives, RUSI Whitehall Report
3-11, page 20. Back
Ev w36 Back
Ev w38 Back
Ev w15 Back
The acronym SSN stands for Ship Submersible Nuclear, and denotes
a nuclear-powered, general purpose, conventionally armed attack
submarine. The acronym SSBN stands for Ship Submersible Ballistic
Nuclear and denotes a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarine. Back
Ev w20 Back
Ev w30 Back
Ev w2 Back
Ev w8 Back
Ninth Special Report of the Committee, Session 2005-06, Appendix,
paragraph 12. Back
Ev w5 Back
The Future of the UK's nuclear deterrent - a view from the US,
speech to Chatham House, 27 May 2010, http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/177693 Back
Ev w7 Back
Small Nuclear Forces, Five Perspectives, RUSI Whitehall Report
3-11, page 18. Back
Ev w24 Back
warns of nuclear response to US Global Strike Programme",
Moscow Times, 11 December 2013, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russia-warns-of-nuclear-response-to-us-global-strike-program/491389.html