Defence CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Dr Nick Ritchie, Department of Politics, University of York

1. This submission to the Committee’s inquiry into “Deterrence in the 21st Century” focuses on the practice of nuclear deterrence by the United Kingdom through its continued deployment of the Trident strategic nuclear weapon system.

2. UK nuclear weapons discourse is in flux. Debate on whether and, if so, how to replace the current system beginning with the procurement of a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines has been underway since 2005.

3. The strategic rationale for retaining a nuclear system as sophisticated and powerful as Trident, or even retaining nuclear weapons at all, has been at the centre of the debate. The purpose of this submission is to challenge claims about the necessity and efficacy of nuclear deterrence in UK defence and security policy. Before that, it raises a number of general contextual points about deterrence and the national interest.

Deterrence and National Interests

4. The scope of the Committee’s inquiry is broad in its focus on the nature and role of deterrence in the round in UK defence and security policy. Some general points about deterrence for the Committee’s consideration are:

(i)Discussion of deterrence in UK defence and security policy is a discussion about deterring threats.

(ii)Threats to be deterred are routinely framed as threats to the nation’s “vital interests”.

(iii)Some “vital interests” are clear, in particular those that relate to the functioning of the state, namely: protection of the state and its people from external attack; and assured access to sufficient resources for a functioning economy such as energy, food, water, commodities, and credit.

(iv)Beyond these practical requirements, defining national interests becomes a deeply political and often aspirational debate. The House of Commons Public Affairs Select Committee has recently examined ideas of national interest and national strategy.i

(v)Similarly, defining threats to vital national interests is a political and subjective process. Some are obvious, others less so as the recent debate on Syria and the use of chemical weapons has demonstrated.

5. The Committee’s study of deterrence in UK defence and security policy will necessarily entail a series of judgments about what constitutes vital national interests and threats to those interests, however they are defined. Only then can it proceed to examine how those threats might be reduced or eliminated through an implicit or explicit UK counter-threat—the essence of deterrence.

6. Deterrence should be distinguished from other national means of reducing or eliminating threats to vital national interests. These include direct violence by the UK, resilience through protection and redundancy, containment and isolation, and diplomacy and engagement.

Certainties of Nuclear Deterrence

7. Deterrence is a process that produces a political effect. Nuclear deterrence is no different. The process of nuclear deterrence is one of communicating, directly or otherwise, an explicit or implicit threat to use nuclear weapons in response to aggression that threatens vital interests. The political effect is to cause the aggressor to cease and/or desist from its unacceptable behaviour—ie to deter them from embarking upon or continuing aggression. This constitutes a successful practice of nuclear deterrence. The political effect is generated by an aggressor’s fear of the threatened consequences of their actions: fear of enormously destructive, indiscriminate, immediate and incontestable nuclear violence at the disposal of the deterring state. “Safety”, as Winston Churchill memorably put it in 1995, now being “the sturdy child of terror”.ii

8. Many advocates of nuclear deterrence argue that deterrence is an inherent characteristic of a nuclear weapon: it exists; therefore it deters by virtue of their destructive potential. Colonel Chance Saltzman (Chief, Strategic Plans and Policy Division, USAF), James Forsyth and Gary Shaub (both USAF scholars) argued in 2010 that “Nuclear weapons produce strategic effects. Their presence compels statesmen to behave cautiously in the face of grave danger. This cautiousness produces restraint, which shores up international stability. In short, nuclear weapons deter.”iii

9. The logic of nuclear deterrence says that nuclear weapons will deter existential military threats to the state. The process works, and works unproblematically. This view is widely held in Whitehall. It is reflected in then Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne’s remarks in 2007: “Why do we need a nuclear deterrent? The answer is because it works. Our deterrent has been a central plank of our national security strategy for fifty years. And the fact is that over this fifty years, neither our nor any other country’s nuclear weapons have ever been used, nor has there been a single significant conflict between the world’s major powers. We believe our nuclear deterrent, as part of NATO, helped make this happen.”iv

10. The conflation of the material object (the nuclear weapon) with a political effect (deterrence) is evident more generally when UK policy-makers routinely refer to Trident as “the deterrent”. In doing so, they assign to Trident an innate and certain ability to deter by virtue of what it is.

11. Put simply, nuclear deterrence as a system of logic works. Possession of nuclear weapons guarantees the survival of the state in the face of existential military threats. They are an “ultimate insurance” of national survival. The David Cameron, for example, has often referred to Trident as “the ultimate insurance policy against blackmail or attack”.v Tony Blair was quite clear in 2006 when he stated his belief that “an independent British nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future” and that “An independent deterrent ensures our vital interests will be safeguarded.”vi These are the certainties that come with the possession of nuclear weapons. This is why the UK must prioritise retention of a strategic nuclear capability after Trident.

Uncertainties of Nuclear Deterrence

12. This paints an attractive picture of policy-makers faced with a complex and messy global security environment. Nuclear weapons and the practice of nuclear deterrence provide an oasis of certainty in a sea of uncertainty. But the reality is that nuclear deterrence does not come with such certainties. Nuclear deterrence is a political process designed to cause a political effect. It is therefore subject to the uncertainties of politics. It is not a rational and objective “science” as often presented but a practice based on subjective political judgement.

13. The uncertainties of nuclear deterrence stem from:

The context out of which US nuclear deterrence theory emerged.

The growing complexity of nuclear deterrence relationships.

Divergent strategic cultures.

Disputed efficacy of nuclear threats.


The context of nuclear deterrence theory’s emergence

14. What US scholar Philip Lawrence called the “scientization of nuclear strategy” during the Cold War was based on an illusion of precision and exactness.vii It was a result of the social and historical context out of which the theory of nuclear deterrence emerged. The root of the problem is (mercifully) the absence of empirical evidence about the use of nuclear weapons. The absence of evidence enabled emerging ideas of nuclear deterrence in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s to be dominated by theories of rational actors interacting according to the precepts of probabilistic game theory. UK scholar Michael MccGwire describes “a central dogma concerning the requirements of deterrence and, more importantly, a frame of mind that went with the dogma… it became a kind of intellectual tranquiliser, its sophisticated logic imparting a sense of false certainty and inhibiting attempts to challenge its underlying assumptions.”viii

15. In fact, the seemingly objective and rational theory of nuclear deterrence and nuclear doctrine reflected specific politicised ideas and understandings about nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, vulnerability to attack, a tendency to “fantasize about Soviet military power,” and selective construction of problems affecting nuclear strategy and the solutions required (usually new weapons).ix Nevertheless, the posited certainties of nuclear deterrence became embedded as a bureaucratic truth.

Complexity of international nuclear order

16. The uncertainties of nuclear deterrence are exacerbated by the growing complexity of international nuclear order. A successful process of nuclear deterrence requires an understanding of an aggressor’s motivation, world-view, resolve, and cost-benefit calculus. The ability to understand a potential opponent(s) in sufficient depth to have confidence in the efficacy of a nuclear deterrent threat is likely to become more difficult as the range of nuclear relationships increases, and with it the range of asymmetries in those relationships in terms of types of nuclear actor, capabilities, identities, and intentions. This complexity will generate significant challenges for policy-makers in terms of the ambiguity of the nuclear situations they might to face. Effective nuclear deterrent threats are likely to become harder to define, communicate and execute in a complex international nuclear environment.x

Divergent strategic cultures

17. An important ingredient in the complexity of international nuclear relations is divergent strategic cultures. The received wisdom on nuclear deterrence suggests that it stabilises relations between nuclear-armed opponents based on a basic common rationality. But the political process of nuclear deterrence is mediated through the strategic cultures and institutions of the actors involved. History suggests that different states, regimes, and leaders can interpret the dynamics of nuclear threats quite differently. To assume that nuclear deterrent threats will work unproblematically and uniformly is difficult. US scholar James Lebovic says this requires “heroic assumptions about the adversary—its ability to think dispassionately, process information, and make the “right” decision under the most challenging of conditions”.xi This can lead to misunderstandings, miscalculation or determined resistance to deterrent threats. The Cold War nuclear confrontation was not the stable, predictable relationship of assured destruction it is often portrayed as today.xii It was highly dangerous, plagued by uncertainty, fuelled by worst-case assumptions and planning with very serious risks of a deliberate or inadvertent cataclysmic nuclear exchange. General Lee Butler, former head of U.S. Strategic Command, stated in 1998: “While we clung to the notion that nuclear war could be reliably deterred, Soviet leaders derived from their historical experience the conviction that such a war might be thrust upon them and if so, must not be lost. Driven by that fear, they took Herculean measures to fight and survive no matter the odds or the costs. Deterrence was a dialogue of the blind with the deaf”.xiii Some leaders may simply choose not to be deterred, particularly if they harbour doubt that the threat will be carried out given perceived interests at stake.

Efficacy of nuclear deterrent threats

18. The efficacy of nuclear deterrence as a stabilising mechanism in major power relations is also far from certain. Advocates of nuclear deterrence state with certainty that nuclear deterrent threats prevented the Cold War turning hot and will continue to prevent war between the major powers. This cannot be claimed with certainty. It assumes that the major powers would have “allowed their various crises to escalate if all they had to fear at the end of the escalatory ladder was something like a repetition of World War II” if nuclear weapons did not exist, as US scholar John Mueller argues.xiv Powerful arguments have been made that the sheer scale of destruction that accompanied World War II through conventional weaponry was sufficient to deter future global war between the major industrialised powers. Leading British historian Sir Michael Howard agrees. He argues that by 1914 mass war between the major powers was fast becoming an “unusable instrument for the conduct of international affairs” due to the ever-increasing cost and uncertain political and economic outcomes. The advent of nuclear weapons intensified this reluctance to engage in war but it did not establish it.xv Even Ambassador George Kennan, who in 1946 first articulated the doctrine of long-term military and political containment of the Soviet Union as part of a new Cold War, concluded in 1984 that the Soviet Union had no interest in overrunning Western Europe militarily and that it would not have launched an attack on Europe in the decades after World War II even if nuclear weapons did not exist.xvi The efficacy of threatening massive destruction through nuclear violence has also been challenged. Ward Wilson’s work in particular has challenged that idea that threat of massive and indiscriminate violence will necessarily persuade a state to halt aggressive behaviour.xvii


19. Leaders can also be deterred from action by the political impact of using their own country’s nuclear weapons. This “self deterrence” in the post-Cold War world refers to what the late French scholar Therese Delpech described as “the reticence, or the refusal, to exert nuclear deterrence in any event, either due to fear of the consequences or because the abhorrence of possible nuclear use is stronger than the perceived need to retaliate in case of an attack.”xviii The legitimacy of nuclear weapons has been subject to renewed challenge in recent years based on the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. In the context of regional intervention, Western governments and armed forces accept that indiscriminate killing of civilians in warfare is counter-productive to war aims and political support in Western capitals. It can undermine the case for military intervention that is routinely framed as defending “civilised” international values and global peace and security. Western governments are therefore unwilling to contemplate inflicting massive and indiscriminate loss of life upon a “rogue” nation’s population for the actions of its leadership. The use of even one or two “sub-strategic” 10kt Trident warheads would likely kill and severely injure tens of thousands of people and totally overwhelm the health services of even a developed country. Nuclear use in the Middle East, North East Asia or other regional conflict zones would be an unprecedented disaster with massive humanitarian, political, environmental and economic costs and deeply counter-productive to Western political values and objectives.

20. In sum, these arguments do not claim that nuclear deterrence can never work. What it does insist is that the practice of nuclear deterrence offers no certainties. It offers only the possibility of generating a desired political effect (deterrence of aggression) through the threat of nuclear violence in extreme circumstances. Having that possibility at the UK’s disposal is evidently important enough for some to insist upon continued retention of nuclear weapons for decades to come. The next section challenges this conclusion by questioning the utility of nuclear weapons in UK defence and security policy.

UK Nuclear Weapons Policy

21. UK nuclear doctrine currently says that nuclear deterrence pertains in a range of circumstances. The most recent comprehensive statement remains the 2006 White Paper on “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”.xix The paper identifies four deterrent roles for UK nuclear weapons:

(1)Deterrence of aggression towards British/NATO vital interests or nuclear coercion/blackmail by major powers with large nuclear arsenals (presumably Russia).

(2)Deterrence of aggression by “emerging nuclear states” (“rogue” states) to enable regional intervention, if necessary.

(3)Deterrence of state-sponsored acts of nuclear terrorism.

(4)A general basic, deterrent to preserve peace and stability in an uncertain world.

The efficacy of UK nuclear deterrent threats in these four contexts is questionable.

Deterrence of major powers with large nuclear arsenals

22. Only two states are likely to have the capability and conceivably the intention in the future to threaten Britain and Western Europe with nuclear weapons: Russia and China. Yet the overall trend in relations with both countries has been cumulatively positive since the end of the Cold War, the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict notwithstanding.xx UK nuclear deterrent threats are of little relevance to its strategic relationship with either country. It is widely and officially acknowledged that the Cold War is truly over and that the possibility of a surprise Russian nuclear first-strike is so low as to be near zero.xxi According to NATO, “the threat of general war in Europe has virtually disappeared”.xxii It is notable that former permanent undersecretary at the Ministry of Defence, Sir Michael Quinlan, argued in 1993, just two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that if the UK did not now possess nuclear weapons “the strict security case for doing so might well seem inadequate”.xxiii Both NATO and Russia have accepted that engagement and partnership is the only sustainable path for lasting security despite pervasive mistrust. Russia is not the Soviet Union. As Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated in 2007, after the Cold War Russia “renounced an ideology of imperial and other “great plans” in favour of pragmatism and common sense”xxiv coupled with repeated expressions from the Russian leadership of its desire and intention to be a “normal” not a revisionist major power. To quote Quinlan again, in 2006: “Even if grounds for unease about Russia’s internal evolution intensify, it is hard to imagine that country re-emerging as a military threat to the political freedom of the countries of the European Union”.xxv The credibility of this worst-case scenario must be questioned. Michael Clarke, Director of the Royal United Services Institute, also observed in 2004: “none of these existential possibilities are worth much of the time of a policy planner, still less a politician”.xxvi

23. China’s history of the past few decades indicates that Beijing will continue to prioritise economic development and that it will continue to steadily integrate into the global economy and international political system, albeit at its own pace and on its own terms—integration rather than assimilation. Relations between the UK and China have steadily improved since the early 1990s post-Tiananmen Square and relations between the EU and China have been similarly transformed into “a comprehensive and multidimensional relationship—even strategic partnership”, according to David Shambuagh, a leading scholar on China’s foreign relations.xxvii China’s overwhelming military focus is on ensuring Chinese sovereignty, national unity and national development and preparing for contingencies involving Taiwan, including the possibility of US intervention.

24. Both Russia and China have become more integrated into the global economy and institutions of global governance. They have exhibited no desire to refashion the current international order in their own image through use or threat of military force or to establish ideological or geo-political blocs in opposition to the “West”. Their long-term integration into the global economy and prevailing international order mean that the costs of aggression between the major industrialised and industrialising powers are now enormous for all potential parties in terms of GDP, human suffering and environmental impact.

25. A long-term trend of improving relations from Cold War lows and the absence of a direct strategic nuclear threat does not suggest that confrontation between the UK, Russia and China has been consigned to history. Russian and Chinese economic growth and nationalism and their desire for a degree of autonomy within the international system will inevitably bring both countries into confrontation with others, including the UK, on a range of issues, ranging from human rights to military capabilities, regional stability, trade policies, global energy markets and territorial disputes with their neighbours, particularly Beijing’s disputes over the status of Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea and Russia’s “near abroad”.xxviii There is also a powerful constituency in the US that continues to view both Russia and China as rival powers to be contained politically and militarily unless and until they fully align with the West. Similar constituencies in Beijing and Moscow foresee dark threats in their perceptions of Western, particularly NATO, strategic encirclement that belittles their legitimate interests. Despite future tensions, disagreements and political crises, some of which may have military dimensions, it is 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, particularly in the absence of ideological enmity.

Deterrence of aggression by “emerging nuclear states”:

26. The efficacy of UK nuclear deterrent threats against a regional nuclear-armed “rogue” state is dubious. States such as Iran are only likely to develop nuclear weapons to deter external intervention. In this context, it would be dangerous to assume, contra Blair’s argument in the 2006 White Paper, that UK nuclear deterrent threats could keep a conflict with a “rogue” state in possession of nuclear weapons and a means of delivery at the level of conventional weaponry. In such circumstances the wisdom of pursuing a strategy of regional intervention with or without insertion of ground troops would be open to serious question. If the survival of the “rogue” regime is threatened then the asymmetry of the stakes involved becomes deeply destabilising in a nuclear environment. Given such asymmetrical stakes it is unlikely (and certainly cannot be in anyway assured) that UK nuclear deterrent threats would prevent the use of nuclear weapons by a regime facing imminent termination by Western conventional forces in a last desperate attempt to save a lost cause.xxix This can easily be exacerbated by the difficulties of understanding the behaviour of “rogue” regimes and problems of mutual incomprehension of motives, values and perceptions of “rational” behaviour that were a factor in the Cold War’s near misses. Major pre-emptive or retaliatory military intervention involving UK forces would likely be judged too dangerous regardless of whether Britain possessed nuclear weapons or not. MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, for example, warns that “Operations that threaten the personal or regime security of autocratic leaderships in nuclear-armed states will entail particular risk.”xxx The 2006 White Paper’s insistence that possession of nuclear weapons will “ensure no aggressor can escalate a crisis beyond UK control” must be treated with scepticism.xxxi

27. Would this leave Britain open to nuclear coercion—being forced to undertake actions the country would not otherwise contemplate due to the threat of nuclear violence? Unlikely. UK officials often claim that the country must retain a nuclear capability in order to prevent nuclear coercion. Yet nuclear coercion, or “blackmail”, has rarely worked in practice. MccGwire argues “despite theorists” best efforts, there is still no example of nuclear compellance. This inherent constraint applies to the rogue state that acquires a minimal capability”.xxxii Indian scholar P. K. Ghosh similarly concludes that nuclear armed states have often resorted unsuccessfully to nuclear coercion in pursuit of their national interests, and that the consequences have proved “dangerous and ambiguous at best”.xxxiii Instances where nuclear compellance has been claimed to work, notably Eisenhower’s threat to China if it did not agree to terminate the Korean War in 1953 and George H. W. Bush’s veiled threat of nuclear retaliation in response to the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein in 1991, have been widely questioned.xxxiv

Deterrence of state-sponsored acts of nuclear terrorism

28. Using the threat of nuclear violence to deter a state-sponsored terrorist nuclear attack is equally questionable. Terrorist groups, state-sponsored or not, are extremely difficult to deter because they are generally revisionist and may regard even failed attacks as superior to inaction. Plausible deniability, the limits of nuclear forensics, the difficulty of determining and demonstrably establishing linkages between non-state actors and state sponsors make the prospect of an immediate retaliatory nuclear strike incredible. The nebulous nature of al-Qaeda and the A. Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network in Pakistan and questions over exactly how much Saddam Hussein new about the state of Iraq’s WMD programmes prior to the US-led invasion in 2003 raise serious questions about the degree of certainty with which a “rogue” state leadership could be directly and immediately implicated in a successful terrorist nuclear attack.xxxv This severely weakens the efficacy of nuclear deterrent threats against a state leadership. Again, one cannot disprove the potential deterrent effect of UK nuclear weapons in this context but, as Quinlan argued, “if we came under attack, or felt ourselves to be under close threat of it, by nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in the hands of terrorists clearly supported or sheltered by identifiable states, nuclear weapons in our hands just might have a part to play in deterrence or response. But I find this a very remote hypothesis.”xxxvi

29. The ability to deter direct aggression by nuclear-armed “rogue” states or indirect aggression through terrorist proxies in a regional context is further undermined by historical experience. Strategic history demonstrates that the possession of nuclear weapons does not prevent regional aggression against the interests of nuclear weapon states. The Soviet Union, for example, established control over Eastern Europe during the period of US nuclear monopoly, North Korea invaded US-backed South Korea in 1950, North Vietnam fought a nuclear-armed China and United States, Argentina invaded the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982, and Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and launched Scud missiles against nuclear-armed Israel. As UK scholar Jeremy Stocker argues, “to date, Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons has not been relevant to a series of regional crises and interventions—Suez, confrontation with Indonesia, the Falklands, and the Gulf Wars”.xxxvii The late Robin Cook also suggested that “it is not easy to see what practical return Britain ever got out of the extravagant sums we invested in our nuclear systems. None of our wars was ever won by them and none of the enemies we fought was deterred by them. General Galtieri was not deterred from seizing the Falklands, although Britain possessed the nuclear bomb and Argentina did not.”xxxviii An important study by US scholar Jacek Kugler in the mid-1980s found that nuclear weapons did not “directly affect the outcomes of extreme crises or deter conflicts” involving nuclear powers with other nuclear or non-nuclear nations or provide an obvious advantage.xxxix

The Limits Of Nuclear “Insurance”

30. Advocates of nuclear deterrence will reply that this analysis may well be correct, but one cannot predict the future and, of course, they are right. The truism of future uncertainty means no one can guarantee the UK will never face a military threat to the survival of state that might only be averted through the threat of nuclear retaliation. The 2006 White Paper also noted the possibility of a major direct nuclear threat to the UK or our NATO Allies over the next 20 to 50 years cannot be ruled out. Indeed, Blair made precisely this point before parliament in 2006, stating that “It is written as a fact by many that there is no possibility of nuclear confrontation with any major nuclear power—except that it is not a fact. Like everything else germane to this judgment, it is a prediction. It is probably right—but certain? No, we cannot say that.”xl Defence Secretary Des Browne argued in 2007 that “yes, the nature of our security situation has changed; but a proper understanding of it suggests that, while there is, right now, no nuclear threat, we cannot rule out the possibility that one will re-emerge.”xli Nuclear weapons, as noted above, are framed as a dependable insurance against a return to major power war. Michael Quinlan cogently argued in 1993 that the UK must retain nuclear weapons after the Cold War “to underpin war prevention, to close off nuclear adventurism and to serve as a low-key element of insurance, not directed against specific adversaries, in support of world order”.xlii

31. The question then becomes one of risk and risk assessment that weighs the probability and consequences of major power war involving direct, existential nuclear threats to the state, the costs of deploying a nuclear capability to try and deter such a threat should it emerge, and the opportunity costs for other capabilities to address a host of other security challenges. Whilst accepting that history is full of surprises, future uncertainty must be considered within the context of an environment where some significant security threats and risks are relatively clear, where known contingencies are important to plan for with limited defence resources, and where a nuclear weapons capability appears to be of minimal relevance.xliii The UK cannot rule out a 1940-type situation where the UK faced a very serious existential threat from the German armed forces sweeping across Europe, nor can it exclude a prolonged nuclear stand-off with an ideologically opposed major power prepared to run the risk of escalation of a limited conventional conflict to a nuclear exchange. But the circumstances are now so remote for the UK and the global security context so different as to very seriously question the necessity and opportunity costs of continued possession of nuclear weapons after Trident. Successive UK governments have formally acknowledged that the UK faces no major direct nuclear or other military threat to the survival of the state and hasn’t for nearly two decades since it de-targeted its nuclear forces in the early 1990s.xliv That is fully one third of the time the UK has been a nuclear power (it conducted its first nuclear test in 1952) in which it has faced no threat that might conceivably invoke serious consideration of use. This could change, but that time period should give pause for thought.

32. It is also important to acknowledge a wider set of limits to the “future uncertainty” and “ultimate insurance” narrative invoked to justify long-term possession of nuclear weapons by the UK, and there are three:

(1)Self-imposed limits on the scope of UK nuclear deterrence in practice.

(2)A misreading of “insurance” in relation to the logic of nuclear deterrence.

(3)The political conflation of general future uncertainty with a subsequent requirement for nuclear weapons.

33. Self-imposed limits: The UK has, to its credit, steadily restricted the circumstances under which it would consider using nuclear weapons through a number of political and legal commitments. The UK updated its “negative security assurance” to non-nuclear weapon state parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review to state “the UK will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT”.xlv The UK has legally codified this assurance for nearly 100 countries by ratifying the protocols annexed to the Treaties establishing nuclear weapon-free zones in Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and Africa. This will increase by 15 more countries if the UK resolves outstanding differences to enable signature of the protocols to the Treaties establishing the South-East Asia and Central Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones.

34. The UK has also explicitly accepted the judgement of the 1996 International Court of Justice (ICJ). The Court’s Advisory Opinion concluded that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law” applicable in armed conflict because the destructive blast, incendiary and radiation effects of nuclear weapons cannot be contained either in space or time.xlvi It could not, however, “conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake”(emphasis added).xlvii The UK does not dispute that international humanitarian law applies to the use of nuclear weapons and has incorporated the notion of “extreme circumstances of self-defence” into its declaratory nuclear policy statements.xlviii Defence Secretary Des Browne stated in December 2007 that “The UK’s nuclear weapons are not designed for use during military conflict but instead to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means…We would only consider using nuclear weapons in self-defence—including the defence of our NATO allies—and even then only in extreme circumstances. That has been and will remain our policy.”xlix

35. In sum, the UK has accepted that it would only ever consider using nuclear weapons if it constituted a proportionate response to aggression, was a necessary response to a nuclear attack, discriminated between combatants and non-combatants, did not cause unnecessary suffering, and was consistent with the protocols to the nuclear weapon-free zones Britain has ratified. The cumulative result is an extremely narrow set of scenarios for the use of UK nuclear weapons in which the state faces extermination through hostile occupation or being nuclear bombed or perhaps poisoned past the point of recovery.

36. Misreading “insurance”: the government’s emphasis on nuclear weapons as a form of insurance is misleading. Insurance is commonly understood to involve an indemnity for loss following an incident. It does not prevent an incident from occurring. Nuclear deterrence is not an “insurance” against the possibility of a nuclear attack on the UK or its allies. It cannot prevent its occurrence. The most that can be said is that possession of nuclear weapons represents a possible—though not assured—ability to deter a would-be aggressor from attacking. Insurance framed as a guarantee of protection is fundamentally misleading since it infers an unproblematic ability of nuclear weapons to deter.

37. General future uncertainty: Government frequently conflates general future uncertainty in international politics with a requirement for nuclear weapons though this insurance metaphor. Yet the practice of nuclear deterrence represents a potential solution to only a very narrow set of possible strategic military threats to the survival of the state, as outlined above. Statements endorsing the necessity of nuclear weapons as a crucial insurance against strategic threats per se to the state’s vital interests sit in marked tension with the very narrow set of conceivable circumstances in which the UK would ever consider using nuclear weapons. General future uncertainty, and the trepidation that goes with it, is used to justify the retention of nuclear weapons based on the supposed certainties of nuclear deterrence.

38. It is clear, however, that nuclear weapons offer little solution to the types of threats to UK “vital interests” likely to arise from “future uncertainty”. 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. Future conflicts are likely to be complex and diverse. They will not be susceptible to purely military solutions and the use of military force in regional crises will be difficult, indeterminate and of limited value. Western military solutions to crises will have to increasingly factor in the effect of the use of force on non-military dimensions of security to ensure legitimacy and lasting effectiveness. Stability, security, peace-building and reconstruction tasks are likely to become core military missions alongside or even in place of combat operations. Nuclear deterrent threats and the possible use of nuclear weapons can play no conceivably useful role in addressing the complex challenges of future international/civil “hybrid” wars.l

39. It is tempting to look to the apparent certainties of nuclear deterrence for comfort when confronting this milieu of threats and risks, but it is a false comfort. Necessity and insurance in the face of uncertainty might be the theme, but nuclear deterrence offers no certainties and nuclear weapons provide little solution to the vulnerabilities the UK is likely to face from these types of conflict and security challenges.

The Dangers of Exhorting the Benefits of Nuclear Deterrence

40. The UK places considerable value on the NPT as an unqualified global security good and has regularly described the NPT as the cornerstone of international security. John Duncan, the UK’s Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament who led the UK delegation to the 2010 NPT Review Conference, stated in 2008 that “the NPT remains the foundation stone of international non-proliferation architecture. If it didn’t exist, the world would be a much more dangerous place, and we would assuredly need to re-invent it”.li

41. The UK’s decision to renew the Trident system with a like-for-like replacement reinforces the value of nuclear weapons and the logic of nuclear deterrence in international politics. The decision to replace Trident and the rationales presented to support send an unambiguous message to the rest of the world that nuclear weapons are an essential capability in an increasingly uncertain world. It is very difficult for the UK to credibly support efforts to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons and support a universal norm against nuclear proliferation whilst insisting that it needs these weapons for its own security for the foreseeable future, particularly when the country faces no strategic nuclear threats. As Director General of the IAEA Mohammed ElBaradei said in February 2007, Britain cannot “modernise its Trident submarines and then tell everyone else that nuclear weapons are not needed in the future”.’lii

42. UK governments have routinely argued that the UK is entitled to possess nuclear weapons as one of five states (the UK, USA, France, Russia, and China) recognised as a “Nuclear Weapon States” in the NPT because it had detonated a nuclear weapons prior to 1 January 1967 at the time the NPT was negotiated.liii

43. The UK and other nuclear weapon states argue that the distinction drawn in the NPT between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states represents a legal, and therefore legitimate, entitlement to possess and deploy nuclear weapons. The problem with this legal argument is that it appropriates the logic of nuclear deterrence for just those five Nuclear Weapon States and no others. Yet the logic of nuclear deterrence as an abstract process of strategic reasoning can be objectively applied to and appropriated by any state that feels sufficiently threatened irrespective of legal obligations and legal designation as a non-nuclear party to the NPT.

44. The UK and other nuclear weapons states proceed as if the logic of nuclear deterrence is not applicable to non-nuclear weapon states because they have accepted the legal designation of “non-nuclear weapon state”. The danger is that the nuclear weapon states feel free to extol the virtues of nuclear deterrence secure in the knowledge that this will no adverse persuasive effect on the non-nuclear community of NPT states because the logic of nuclear deterrence cannot be appropriated by them. It is this legal argument that is used to justify the nuclear weapon states’ “do as I say, not as I do” approach to their continued possession of nuclear weapons.

45. The problem is that extolling the virtues of nuclear deterrence does have a persuasive effect precisely because the logic is universally applicable on its own strategic political-military grounds and non-nuclear weapon states recognise this. They recognise that this logic can only lead, eventually, to a much more dangerous world of many more nuclear armed states. Regular advocacy of the benefits of nuclear deterrence for a select view increases the attractiveness of nuclear weapons and undermines the legitimacy of the NPT and efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. UK nuclear weapons expert William Walker sums it up well: “to pay open homage to nuclear deterrence is to jeopardize the non-proliferation norms and regime”.liv Politically the UK can do little else; it cannot recognise the general legitimacy of the logic of nuclear deterrence for all states because to do so would be to openly legitimise nuclear proliferation—an approach recognised as “an extraordinarily dangerous proposition” by Foreign Minister Bill Rammell in Instead it adopts a duplicitous legal argument to legitimise its nuclear weapons that fools no one.

46. Possession of nuclear weapons and advocacy of nuclear deterrence become part of the problem of managing international nuclear relations and further proliferation, not the solution. Framing nuclear weapons as a currency of power in international politics and eulogising the practice of nuclear deterrence exerts what Jonathan Schell calls a “proliferance” effect. Proliferance is a political effect that frames nuclear weapons an attractive, if not essential, national asset. It is the outcome of policies that frame nuclear weapons as a necessary solution to national security threats and a source of prestige.lvi As former UK Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, David Broucher argued in 2006 that “In the longer term the danger is that the UK’s decision [to replace Trident] will be taken as one of a number of factors indicating that nuclear weapons are now a permanent feature of the international security environment. They are no longer a response to a specific security need, but an insurance policy against all comers. This will signal that efforts to eradicate nuclear weapons have effectively been shelved, which could combine with other factors that are already eroding confidence in the Non-proliferation Treaty and contribute to a seismic shift in international security postures.”lvii


47. This submission has argued the following:

(i)Nuclear deterrence is a political process subject to the uncertainties that plague all political processes.

(ii)Nuclear weapons do not infallibly deter. The deployment of nuclear weapons provides only the possibility of successfully deterring aggression through the threat of nuclear violence in a very narrow set of circumstances.

(iii)The relevance and efficacy of the nuclear deterrence rationales set out in the 2006 Defence White Paper are questionable.

(iv)The conflation of general future uncertainty with the necessity of a nuclear capability is problematic and misleading given the formal restrictions on UK’s use of nuclear weapons and the type of threats the UK is likely to face over the coming decades.

(v)Advocacy of the benefits of nuclear deterrence forms part of the problem of achieving a sustainable international nuclear order rather than part of the solution.

(vi)The utility of the UK’s nuclear weapons in the deterrence of threats to its vital interests is extremely limited.

48. The Committee is urged to consider to implications of the extremely limited utility of UK nuclear deterrence threats for UK defence and security policy when the country has limited defence resources with which to confront and deter the challenges it is likely to face.

49. The Committee is urged to acknowledge that investing in nuclear weapons in the name of nuclear deterrence is a political choice resting on a political judgement. Furthermore, all of the nuclear choices open to the UK come with uncertainty and risk. This includes risks associated with the retention of nuclear weapons in terms of opportunity costs, the impact on the NPT, and the risk of nuclear conflict based on the uncertainties and dangers of practicing nuclear deterrence. There are no risk-free nuclear choices for the UK.

50. To be clear: the hope, or assertion, of deterrence advocates is that the incontestable enormity of nuclear violence will always, permanently, induce sufficient a level of caution into nuclear relations as to preclude international nuclear relations tipping over into a nuclear violence. This hope rests on a reductionist belief in a basic level of rationality innate to human beings such that all political leaders recognise and understand the implications of thermonuclear war to the extent that executive nuclear lunacy is forever held in check. For some, an international nuclear order that rests on this belief carries some risk that history might negate it, but it is a small risk and one that is worth the posited benefits of safety and security. For others, a nuclear order based on this belief represents a dangerous high-risk strategy and a progressively less risky system of international nuclear relations needs to be constructed before history calls nuclear time.

51. In that context the Committee is urged to consider the opportunity costs of retaining a strategic nuclear weapons capability. Recapitalising the current Trident system is currently estimated to cost £25 billion in outturn prices for the submarines alone. On top of that are the costs of a new warhead, support infrastructure at HMNB Clyde, the massive works programme at AWE, eventually a new missile from the US Navy, plus £2–3 billion per annum in operating costs for the nuclear complex. This represents a significant proportion of MoD’s procurement budget and operating costs at a time of sustained downward pressure on the defence budget. It is therefore vitally important that the country fully understand what it seeks to gain from such significant expenditure. It is essential to question 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.

September 2013


i House of Commons Public Affairs Select Committee, “Strategic thinking in Government: without National Strategy, can viable Government strategy emerge?” HC 1625 (London: HMSO, April 2012).

ii House of Commons, 1 March 1955.

iii J. Forsyth, B. Chance Saltzman, G. Schaub (2010) “Remembrance of Things Past: The Enduring Value of Nuclear Weapons”, Strategic Studies Quarterly, 4: 1, p. 75.

iv D. Browne, “The United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent in the 21st Century”, speech at King’s College London, 25 January 2007.

v D. Cameron, House of Commons, Official Report, 18 May 2011, Col. 338.

vi Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) (2006) “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”, Cm 6994 (London: HMSO), p. 5.

vii P. Lawrence (1988) “Strategic Beliefs, Mythology and Imagery”, in R. Little and S. Smith (eds.) Belief Systems and International Relations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Inc.), p. 143.

viii M. MccGwire (1986), "Deterrence: The Problem not the Solution", International Affairs 62:1, pp. 55, 58.

ix R. Jervis (1989) The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), pp. 38, 183.

x E. Adler (2009) “Complex Deterrence in the Asymmetric-Warfare Era”, in T.V. Paul, M. Morgan and J. Wirtz (eds.) Complex Deterrence: Strategy in the Global Age (University of Chicago Press: Chicago), p. 96.

xi J. Lebovic (2007) Deterring International Terrorism and Rogue States (London: Routledge), p. 4.

xii S. Sagan (2000) “The Commitment Trap”, International Security, 24: 4, pp. 97-98.

xiii General G. L. Butler, “The Risks of Nuclear Deterrence: From Superpowers to Rogue Leaders”, speech to the National Press Club, Washington, D.C., 2 February 1998.

xiv J. Mueller (1988) “The essential irrelevance of nuclear weapons”, International Security 13: 2, p. 66.

xv M. Howard (1964) “Military power and international order”, International Affairs 40: 3, pp. 402-403.

xvi G. Kennan (1996) “American Policy toward Russia on the Eve of the 1984 Presidential Election”, in G. Kennan, At a Century’s Ending: Reflections 1982-1995 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), p. 105. Cited in R. Green (2000) The Naked Nuclear Emperor (Christchurch, New Zealand: The Disarmament and Security Centre), p. 38.

xvii W. Wilson (2007), “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima”, International Security, 31: 4, pp. 162-79.

xviii T. Delpech (2012) Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century (Santa Monica, CA: RAND), p. 34.

xix The 2010 “Strategic Defence and Security Review” reproduced these strategic deterrence rationales for nuclear retention, at times word-for-word.

xx See M. Clarke (2004) “Does my Bomb Look big in this? Britain’s Nuclear Choices after Trident”, International Affairs, 80: 1, p. 56.

Xxi “Joint Declaration by the President of the Russian Federation and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, Moscow, 15 February 1994.

xxii NATO (2008) “Evolution of NATO-Russia Relations” (Brussels, NATO), date accessed on 30 March 2008; “Final Communiqué”, Ministerial Meeting of the Defence Planning Committee and the Nuclear Planning Group, Brussels, NATO, 15 June 2007.

xxiii M. Quinlan (1993), “The Future of Nuclear Weapons: Policy for Western Possessors”, International Affairs, 69: 3, p. 493.

xxiv S. Lavrov (2007) “Containing Russia: Back to the Future?” Russia in Global Affairs, No. 4, p. 1.

xxv M. Quinlan (2006), “The Future of United Kingdom Nuclear Weapons”, International Affairs, 82: 4, p. 633.

xxvi M. Clarke (2004),”Does my Bomb Look big in this? Britain’s Nuclear Choices after Trident”, International Affairs, 80: 1, p. 56.

xxvii D. Shambaugh (2004) “China and Europe: The Emerging Axis”, Current History, 103: 674, p. 243; D. Shambaugh , “China-Europe Relations Get Complicated”, Brookings Northeast Asia Commentary, 4 March 2008, Washington, D.C., The Brookings Institution.

xxviii E. Rumer (2007) Russian Foreign Policy Beyond Putin, Adelphi Paper 390 (London: Routledge for International Institute for Strategic Studies).

xxix K. Payne (1998) “Post-Cold War Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Deterrence Policy”, Comparative Strategy 17: 3, p. 242.

xxx Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (2007), The DCDC Global Strategic Trends Programme 2007-2036, Shrivenham, p. 74 (emphasis in original).

xxxi Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) (2006) “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”, Cm 6994 (London: HMSO), pp. 5, 18.

xxxii MccGwire (1994), “Is There a Future for Nuclear Weapons”, International Affairs, 70: 2, p. 214.

xxxiii P. K. Ghosh (2006) “Deterrence Asymmetry and Other Challenges to Small Nuclear Forces” in I. Kenyon and J. Simpson (eds.) Deterrence and the New Global Security Environment (London: Routledge), pp. 31, 41.

xxxiv R. Foot (1988) “Nuclear Coercion and the Ending of the Korean Conflict”, International Security, 13: 3, pp. 92-112; M. Bundy (1991) “Nuclear Weapons and the Gulf”, Foreign Affairs, 70: 4, pp. 83-94.

xxxv K. Woods (2006) Iraqi Perspectives Project: A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership (U.S. Joint Forces Command, Norfolk, VA, Joint Center for Operational Analysis), p. 92.

xxxxvi M. Quinlan (2001), “The Future of Deterrence Capability for Medium-Sized Western Powers in the New Security Environment”, Proliferation Papers (Paris: IFRI), p. 8.

xxxvii J. Stocker (2007) The United Kingdom and Nuclear Deterrence, Adelphi Paper 386 (London: Routledge for IISS), p.34.

xxxviii R. Cook, “Worse than Irrelevant?”¸ The Guardian, 29 July 2005.

xxxix J. Kugler (1984) “Terror without deterrence”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 28: 3, pp. 479-482.

xl House of Commons, Official Report, 4 December 2006, Column 21.

xli D. Browne (2007) “The United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent in the 21st Century”, speech on 25 January 2007, King’s College London.

xlii M. Quinlan, “The Future of Nuclear Weapons: Policy for Western Possessors”, International Affairs, Vol. 69, No. 3, 1993, p. 496.

xliii M. Fitzsimmons (2006) “The Problem of Uncertainty in Strategic Planning”, Survival 48: 4, pp. 131, 134.

xliv “Joint Declaration by the President of the Russian Federation and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” Moscow, February 15, 1994.

xlv The SDSR provided two caveats: first, “In giving this assurance, we emphasise the need for universal adherence to and compliance with the NPT, and note that this assurance would not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations”; and second, “We also note that while there is currently no direct threat to the UK or its vital interests from states developing capabilities in other weapons of mass destruction, for example chemical and biological, we reserve the right to review this assurance if the future threat, development and proliferation of these weapons make it necessary”, pp. 37-38.

xlvi Cabinet Office (2010), A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy, Cm 7953 (London: HMSO), pp. 37-38.

xlvii Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion at the request of the UN General Assembly, ICJ Reports, 8 July 1996, para 95.

Ibid., para 97.

xlviii For example, House of Commons Defence Committee (2006), “The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: The Strategic Context: The Government’s Response to the Committee’s Eighth Report of 2005-06”, HC 1558 (London: HMSO), p. 3.

xlix House of Commons, Official Report, 3 December 2007, Column 56W.

l J. Arquilla (1999) “The End of War as We Knew it?”, Third World Quarterly 28: 2, p. 369; M. Kaldor (1999) New and Old Wars (Cambridge: Polity Press), p. 6.

li J. Duncan, “UK General Statement to the 2008 Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee”, 28 April 2008, United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the Conference on Disarmament, Vienna.

lii D. Blair, “UN nuclear watchdog call Trident hypocritical”, Daily Telegraph, 20 February 2007.

liii Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) (2006) “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”, Cm 6994 (London: HMSO), p. 14.

liv W. Walker (2007b), “International Nuclear Order: A Rejoinder”, International Affairs, 83: 4, p. 752.

lv House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs (2009), Global Security: Non-Proliferation, HC 222 (London: HMSO), p. Ev.64.

lvi J. Schell (2000) “The Folly of Arms Control”, Foreign Affairs, 79: 5, p. 32.

lviii House of Commons Defence Committee (2006), “The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: The Strategic Context”, HC 986 (HMSO: London), p. Ev. 140.

Prepared 25th March 2014