The United Kingdom has begun to debate whether to replace the current Trident nuclear weapons system, which will cease to be operational in the early 2020s, or to become the first acknowledged nuclear-weapon state to comply fully with Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) by eliminating the British arsenal.
A decision is expected sometime in this parliament, whose term will end no later than 2010. Just before last year’s general election, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that it would need to consider a follow-on to Trident, but it sought to portray the decision as essentially technical—whether to extend the life of the current submarines or build new platforms.
The government’s attempt to slip the decision through quietly failed, and a contentious debate about the future of British nuclear weapons and nonproliferation policy has now been kindled. Politicians and retired military officers are taking sides, the grassroots peace movement is mobilizing, and members of parliament are demanding to participate in the decision-making.
Blair has made clear that he believes the United Kingdom should retain “the independent nuclear deterrent.” Yet, his defense secretary, John Reid, has tried to reassure members of parliament that no decision has been taken on any replacement and that the government would “listen to” their views. However, there was no commitment to either a debate or vote on the matter in parliament.
In an editorial written just before his death in July 2005, Robin Cook, who had served previously as Blair’s foreign secretary, raised questions about the expensive building and upgrading of facilities at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, to which the government committed substantial additional funds well before any debate or decision on the future of British nuclear weapons. He said, “Down at Aldermaston they are spending hundreds of millions of pounds of your money on a refit of the production line for nuclear warheads. We are assured this does not mean that any decision has been made to replace the Trident nuclear system. Dear me no, the investment is merely intended to keep open our options.”
Having been one of the most senior Cabinet members in Blair’s first government, Cook might be forgiven his cynicism, but this is not just a parochial question of whether British taxpayers’ money should be spent in this way before a democratic decision has been taken. The United Kingdom’s decision is likely to have international consequences too. An accident of timing means that the question of Trident’s replacement has come to the fore just when the nonproliferation regime is under heavy and damaging pressure, as illustrated by the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea and the ignominious failure of the NPT review conference in May 2005. Now London risks opening up a further large wound in the nonproliferation regime if it tells the world that nuclear weapons are far too valuable for even these small islands off western Europe to think of giving them up for at least the next 50 years.
Already heating up in national editorials and meetings around the country, the debate is split less along ideological or party lines than around arguments about the utility and relevance of nuclear weapons for addressing 21st-century security challenges. The choice was summed up in an editorial by the British former secretary of state for international development, Clare Short, who wrote that, “[s]hould we continue to act as a fig leaf for the U.S. and pretend that a nuclear weapon supplied and serviced by them somehow makes us a significant power? Or do we understand that the threat of global warming, the growth of the world population, and the loss of environmental resources constitute the most important threats to the future of human civilization?”
Michael Portillo, a Conservative former defense secretary, noted that Blair appeared still to be nursing scars from the bitter 1980s battles over nuclear policy. After 1979, Labour lost the next three general elections, in 1983, 1987 and 1992. Of course, there were many reasons for Labour’s four consecutive electoral defeats, but some still blame its nuclear disarmament stance of 1983, most cruelly lampooned in a clever Tory poster that depicted a British soldier with his arms raised in surrender. At that time, Blair, like most Labour Party members, opposed the Conservative decision to ac quire Trident and supported the wide spread anti-nuclear movements sweeping through Europe against the deployment of a new generation of mobile U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons. Arguing that times have changed, Portillo in effect told Blair to evaluate the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons based on future needs and not past traumas. “[I]t lies entirely in his hands to make a unilateral cut in the global arsenal of weapons and to lead the world by example,” he said.
The British decision, whichever way it goes, could prove to be a tipping point, with profound implications—positive or negative—for global nonproliferation efforts.
Determined to develop nuclear weapons in the 1950s despite U.S. opposition, the United Kingdom has since become heavily dependent on the United States in order to stay in the nuclear club. Currently, it deploys four nuclear-powered submarines, with 58 U.S.-supplied Trident D5 missiles and up to 200 warheads, comprising a total explosive power of around 19 megatons (the equivalent of more than 1,400 Hiroshima bombs). The warheads are manufactured at Aldermaston, 80 kilometers from London. They use plutonium originally produced at Sellafield, but these days the United Kingdom relies on the United States for other essential components, including the neutron generators and tritium, which it no longer produces independently. Although some research has gone into varying war head yields for small, “sub-strategic” strikes, the basic design is close to the specifications of the 100-kiloton W76 warheads used by the United States on its Trident D5 missiles.
The question of replacement has arisen because the first submarines are nearing the end of their expected service life. Trident, which replaced the earlier Polaris system, began to be operational in the 1990s. The first submarine, HMS Vanguard, went operation al in 1994, and the fourth, HMS Vengence, went on its first patrol in February 2001. In large part due to the design of their nuclear reactors, the official operational life of these submarines is given as 25 years. Without service-life extension, they can be expected to be decommissioned around 2019-2026. On that basis and to avoid any hiatus in the United Kingdom ’s nuclear status if a new system is commissioned from scratch, the government put the decision on replacement on its agenda for this parliament.
According to government sources, the two options that are being most seriously considered are a like-for-like replacement, requiring that a new fleet of submarines be built to carry similar or upgraded missiles and warheads, or an extension of the ser vice life of the existing submarines, which in practice means a major refit of the hulls and nuclear reactors. Supporters and opponents for each of these options can be found in the Ministries of Defence and Treasury and the Royal Navy, with no word yet on which course Blair or his probable successor, Gordon Brown, would favor.
As discussed in more detail below, both options would cement the United King dom ’s heavy dependence on U.S. delivery systems and continued bilateral nuclear collaboration. Both options are also vulnerable to what is coyly termed “The Scottish Question.” According to an influential 2001 analysis from two eminent Scottish professors, William Walker and Malcolm Chalmers, London has no practical alternative to the Royal Navy base at Faslane in Scotland for berthing the larger submarines capable of firing Trident missiles. Unfortunately for nuclear planners, there is growing public opposition to the deployment of British nuclear weapons in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party, the main opposition party in the Scottish parliament, has pledged to get rid of Trident. Although the limited autonomy granted to Scotland does not include a say over matters related to defense and security, the deployment of Trident depends on cooperation from other Scottish institutions, including the police and emergency services. Among both the public and the political elites in Scotland and Wales, including the churches and political parties, there is greater skepticism about nuclear status and deterrence than in England. If pressure builds for nuclear weapons to be removed from Scotland, as some Scottish parties and anti-nuclear groups are vowing to promote, Trident or its replacement might be turned out of Faslane with no other suitable berth in sight.
A House of Commons briefing for members of parliament in July 2005 identified a further possible option, that of procuring “a brand new capability.” Theoretically, this might be U.S.-supplied sea- or air-launched cruise missiles. Alternatively, some have mooted a return to free-fall nuclear bombs on long-range aircraft or a joint system with the French. The cruise missile options have some advocates, as these arms could avoid the Scottish Question and might be viewed as a cheaper way for the United Kingdom to remain a nuclear-weapon state, with the status and political advantages that this designation is deemed to entail. Such options could be construed as reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, particularly if a decision were taken not to take nuclear-armed missiles out on regular patrols. They might also be conceived as a shift toward the kind of flexibility promoted in the Bush administration’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review and National Security Strategy, which include pre-emptive and retaliatory roles for nuclear weapons. This might also signal a loss of confidence in deterrence. For these reasons, such options are less likely to find favor in defense circles, where concerns will be raised about the increased vulnerability of these proposed platforms, the destabilizing disadvantage of dual-use unpredictability, and the drawbacks of lowering the threshold for nuclear use. It is therefore unlikely that these options will be taken forward unless London has abandoned all pretense of a nuclear deterrence doctrine and simply desires to retain the political instrument of nuclear-weapon status on the cheap.
Although not mentioned in the House of Commons briefing, a fourth option is increasingly being canvassed in articles and editorials by senior politicians of all parties: not to replace Trident at all but instead to use the next 15 years to manage the transition to a non-nuclear defense policy, there by bringing London into full compliance with its nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT.
The omission of this option from official discussions is deliberate, as it is not something that Blair wants to think about. On Oct. 19, 2005, he told the House of Commons, “I do not think that anyone pretends that the independent nuclear deterrent is a defence against terrorism; nonetheless, I believe that it is an important part of our defence.” Hoping to head off a divisive debate in the Labour Party, Blair argued that a commitment to retain some kind of nuclear force for deterrence purposes had been in Labour’s manifesto prior to the general election of May 2005. As senior members of parliament have pointed out, however, the manifesto can only be construed as a commitment not to disarm within the next five years and does not necessarily cover the replacement decision. Moreover, the 1997 manifesto, on which Labour finally won government that year, had contained the commitment that, “[w]hen satisfied with verified progress towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons, we will ensure British nuclear weapons are included in such negotiations.”
It would be a mistake to dismiss the United Kingdom ’s decision as trivial on the grounds that replacing Trident would just maintain the status quo. There is arguably no direct or causal link between the United Kingdom’s nuclear policies and the calculations and decisions of other nuclear-weapon possessors or aspirants, but the decision on replacing Trident puts the United Kingdom in a pivotal position to give positive or negative signals about the future salience of nuclear weapons for defense or political gains. Promoting the extension of the United Kingdom’s nuclear reliance for the next half century is tantamount to an announcement that, despite recognizing that nuclear weapons are irrelevant against terrorism and despite the threat of invasion or war in Europe being lower than at almost any time in UK history, the government cannot envisage reducing reliance on nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.
The United Kingdom is not an extraordinarily wealthy country for whom the billions earmarked for a new generation of nuclear weapons would be easy to find. The Cold War justifications for nuclear weapons do not work as they once did, and there is no longer any traction in the argument that nuclear weapons provide an economical deterrent that keeps conventional defense costs lower than would otherwise be required. On the contrary, the British military is stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Treasury issues frequent warnings about the future funding of the health and social services, pensions, and schools. Of even more pertinence, there is growing consensus that traditional state- based conflict will be less of a threat than the kinds of diffuse, transboundary human security challenges arising from climate change, nonstate armed groups with terrorist agendas, pandemics (naturally occurring or associated with bioweapons), poverty, and conflicts over energy or water supplies, as well as organized crime and trafficking.
Depending on the option, extending the United Kingdom’s nuclear forces beyond 2024 will carry a price tag of at least $36 billion (£20 billion) for procurement and production, plus operation costs of nearly $2 million (more than £1 million) per year, without even taking the weapons establishments and additional decommissioning and nuclear waste into account. Over its projected lifetime, the cost could be in excess of $45 billion (£25 billion). This would be fiscally painful for London, with serious opportunity costs in terms of defense and other programs. As Portillo trenchantly observed in The Sunday Times, “If the UK diverts billions of pounds from its future defence budgets into nuclear weapons that will never be used, it will have less money to spend on useful things such as aircraft carriers and submarines.” Under these circumstances, any decision to replace Trident will inevitably broadcast to Iran and North Korea , as well as other nuclear-weapon aspirants waiting in the wings, that nuclear weapons are worth it. It would also under score that the United Kingdom does not really mean to implement the disarmament commitments it negotiated and adopted in relation to the NPT in 1968 and at the NPT review conferences of 1995 and 2000.
While Article VI of the NPT may appear rather vague in its disarmament commitments, the nuclear-weapon states are required to undertake good-faith negotiations leading to the “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” This language was brought up to date and given greater clarity and meaning during 1995-2000 through agreements adopted when the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995, an authoritative interpretation by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1996, and agreements negotiated by the nuclear-weapon states and adopted by all NPT states-parties by consensus at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. In particular, the 2000 conference built on the court’s interpretation of the NPT’s legal obligations in a 13-paragraph section of the final document, for which both the United Kingdom and United States credited themselves with having played a constructive role, working with key non-nuclear-weapon states to strengthen the NPT.
Where some others, including France and the Bush administration, have since distanced themselves, London has continued publicly to stand by these commitments. Of particular relevance are the pledges by the five NPT nuclear powers to make an “unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals” and commit themselves to a program of “practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI.”
Among the 13 principles and measures that were explicitly identified, the agreements required further reductions in strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons; adherence to the principles of transparency, irreversibility, and verified compliance; and “a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination.”
This makes clear that the nuclear disarmament objective of Article VI does not depend on accomplishment of general and complete disarmament, although this is also an objective, and that the obligation is not just to reduce the number of nuclear weapons but to eliminate them.
Reid told the House of Commons in June 2005 that “anything we do in [the] future will be fully consistent with our obligations under the NPT.” In 2004 two eminent lawyers, Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin, noted that consensus agreements by states-parties in a review conference are “an appropriate source of interpretation of the obligations of the NPT.” They further argued that “[t]he importance of Article VI to the objects and purposes of the NPT is shown both by the negotiation history of the NPT and by the reaffirmation of its significance by the 2000 Review Conference. The Review Conference also emphasized that strict observance of the NPT is required, that is observance with both the letter and spirit of its articles.” In late 2005, they published a further legal opinion, concluding that “[t]he replacement of Trident is likely to cause a [material] breach of article VI of the NPT.”
In accordance with these judgments, none of the nuclear weapons systems under consideration as a follow-on to Trident would meet Reid’s promise to act in accordance with British obligations under the NPT.
The U.S. Dimension
As illustrated in Blair’s speeches, government spokespeople rarely if ever refer to British nuclear weapons; it is always “the/our independent deterrent.” As with the seedier ends of advertising, the more loudly certain phrases are repeated, the surer you can be that the truth is being camouflaged. The United Kingdom would not have a nuclear weapon without the United States providing the delivery system, the tritium to boost the explosion, and various other parts and services. Most recently, on Feb. 23, the two NPT members jointly conducted a subcritical nuclear test in Nevada. No doubt this was of mutual benefit, since both nuclear establishments are now pursuing a new Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). UK warheads need to be compatible with U.S. delivery systems, and the RRW is intended to maximize design flexibility without requiring full-scale nuclear testing. This is especially important for the United Kingdom since it has signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
British dependency on U.S. procurement and planning carries practical risks that both sides are reluctant to discuss. Current U.S. plans anticipate deployment of Trident D5 missiles until 2042, but this could change if U.S. policy were to change. On at least three occasions in the past, British nuclear planners have had to scramble fast when Washington’s decisions to change or cancel U.S. programs left British plans high and dry. If the United Kingdom invested in new nuclear submarines, they would be expected to last to at least 2055. A U.S. decision not to continue D5 missile production to that date could leave the United Kingdom with expensive but impractical submarines with years of life left in them. Otherwise, British planners might be faced with the awkward task of finding alternative missiles or retrofitting different missile types into submarines designed to carry the D5.
Even more importantly, U.S.-British nuclear collaboration helps undermine the authority and credibility of the nonproliferation regime. In 1995 and 2000, concerns were raised by other NPT states about this nuclear collaboration, which is governed by the 1958 Agreement for Cooperation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defense Purposes (Mutual Defense Agreement). The purposes of the agreement are blatant, encompassing not only the delivery vehicles but transfers of special nuclear materials and know-how “necessary to improve the United Kingdom’s atomic weapon design, development or fabrication capability.” As noted by Singh and Chinkin in 2004, U.S.-British nuclear cooperation promotes the “continuation and indeed enhancement of the [United Kingdom’s] nuclear programme, not progress towards its discontinuation.”
The United Kingdom and the United States are quick to point out that their original agreement predated the NPT. This is true, but Singh and Chinkin argue persuasively that the Mutual Defense Agreement’s renewal in December 2004 breached both the spirit and letter of the NPT, as strengthened by the 1995 and 2000 agreements. Certainly, the United States and the United Kingdom would be the first to complain if Russia decided to help China out with its nuclear missile program!
Although it is anticipated that a positive and effective transatlantic alliance will re main a key strategic objective for British and U.S. governments in the future, continuing with such close nuclear cooperation carries costs that will need to be carefully weighed. Supporters argue that the nuclear relation ship reinforces the “special relationship” between London and Washington and enables the United Kingdom to remain a nuclear power at affordable cost. Some British officials aver that this also helps London to have continuing influence in Washing ton , although recent events have made skeptics of many others. There is now growing concern that the United Kingdom’s nuclear dependency undermines national sovereignty, especially in security decision- making and international relations, and that far from strengthening British influence in the United States, the asymmetric nuclear relationship actually constrains London from challenging Washington when it matters, as illustrated in the run- up to the Iraq war. As Portillo argued in TheSunday Times, the United Kingdom “could be more powerful and a more useful ally for America if we did not waste money on renewing the nuclear deterrent.”
On the basis of respecting British sovereignty, U.S. policymakers seem to have taken a formal position of neutrality while stepping up lab-to-lab cooperation and nuclear projects, such as the joint subcritical test, the first since 2002. Blair is afraid, how ever, that the United States would not be happy if the United Kingdom were to give up its nuclear weapons. The argument cuts both ways, so it would be helpful to hear more discussion in the United States about the modern role of nuclear weapons—its own and those of its allies as well as real or potential adversaries.
The Need for Open and Accountable Decision-Making
In her November editorial, Short raised concerns that, “[g]iven the track record of Blair and his Defence Secretary John Reid, we can be almost certain that the decision has al ready been made.” Although that may have been the prime minister’s intention, it is not necessarily a done deal. By Feb. 15, more than 145 members of parliament—around a quarter of the House of Commons, including representatives from all the major parties—had signed an Early Day Motion calling on the government “to publish a consultation paper setting out the issues, including threat assessments, estimated costs and all nuclear and non-nuclear options, as a basis for the public debate.”
The House of Commons Defence Committee also has responded to calls from members of parliament and their constituents by convening a Defence Committee Inquiry, billed as “the first in a series of investigations on the future of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent.” Invitations to give written and oral evidence have been sent to experts and officials, and the inquiry intends to examine the nature of future threats and the changing security environment as well as identifying when key decisions will actually need to be taken.
Meanwhile, civil society is also gearing up. Having played a successful role in pushing for a debate, the handful of nongovernmental organizations working on nuclear issues are now being joined by many more academics and institutes examining the future of British nuclear weapons from all angles. In addition, local residents have challenged planning applications and delayed some of the new construction work at Aldermaston on health, environmental, and legal grounds.
In addition to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Greenpeace, the churches are taking interest and citizens groups are springing up once again in towns and villages across the country. In view of the pivotal role of Scotland, a new grassroots initiative is organizing a yearlong protest at the Faslane nuclear base to “apply critical public pressure for the disarmament of Britain’s nuclear weapons.” Starting in October, the aim of Faslane 365 is to bring thousands of people to “witness and impede the nuclear base where Britain’s nuclear weapons are deployed” and “enable them to demonstrate the range of serious concerns—from human rights to climate change—that people in the real world consider to be the vital challenges for the 21st century.”
By juxtaposing the immorality of nuclear weapons with a range of issues linked to peace, human security, and justice, the organizers hope to draw in a broader constituency of people prepared to engage in civil resistance to uphold international law. Similarly, a women’s peace camp at Aldermaston has stepped up opposition to the building of new warhead design facilities and to the warhead-laden convoys that frequently travel by road between Aldermaston in Southern England and Faslane in Scotland.
Civil society may be building on some of the successful tactics developed in the 1980s, but the arguments opposing a nuclear follow-on to Trident are firmly about the 21st century. Although the nonproliferation regime’s historical discrimination between the rights and obligations of nuclear haves and have-nots was bolstered by Cold War power relations, the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons were predicated on a So viet-type threat that no longer exists and is extremely unlikely to rise in the same way again. Now, new proliferators are seeking nuclear weapons for status and regional power projection and in some cases because they want to deter the United States. For the United Kingdom, the threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism are more likely than invasion or nuclear war, so the onus needs to be on preventing access to nuclear materials or devices, not on making more.
The nonproliferation regime needs to be strengthened and made more credible. The United Kingdom has a historic chance to provide leadership and promote more effective disarmament and international non proliferation strategies. Although he prides himself on being forward looking, Blair appears stuck in the Cold War on this issue, lacking “the flexibility even to bring his thinking into line with where [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan’s was nearly 20 years ago.” As a former senior adviser to the Labour government on foreign policy recently observed, “Real security considerations are a negligible factor in the development of Labour’s nuclear weapons policy, the burden of the past weighing too heavily for objectivity to intrude.” That has to change.
The prime minister needs to get over his 1980s traumas. Real security considerations should be at the heart of the decision-making process on the future of Trident. The debate has begun, but there needs to be more open information and discussion about the United Kingdom’s real needs. As advocated by more than 100 members of parliament from all the major political parties, the government should undertake a comprehensive security and defense review with a remit that encompasses wider concepts of security and a relevant threat assessment. The last Strategic Defence Review took place in 1997- 1998 and was precluded from examining nuclear policy in depth. Much has changed since then. In order to provide a rational, defensible basis for making the decision on whether to replace Trident, the comprehensive review should analyze the role of nuclear weapons and the efficacy of nuclear deterrence in the post-September 11, 2001, security environment, including issues of decommissioning, safety, and security of materials, components, and facilities. Nor should it omit consideration of the moral and legal implications, as these form part of the strategic context within which the international community seeks to prevent proliferation and the use of weapons of mass destruction.
In the 21st-century security environment, nonproliferation and deterrence must adapt or else they will fail. Blair acknowledges that nuclear weapons are useless against terrorism. The government needs to take the next logical step and think beyond nuclear weapons to deter and defuse the foreseeable threats of this era and help to establish alternative approaches that recognize the security needs of all peoples.
The only sustainable long-term solution will require the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons and weapon-usable nuclear materials. Although there is still a chance to prevent proliferation by limiting the available sources and increasing physical safety and security, the United Kingdom and the other nuclear powers have to recognize that their own weapons and policies are part of the problem and hinder international efforts to devalue nuclear weapons and reduce proliferation incentives. Now is the time to begin phasing out nuclear weapons, starting with a decision not to replace Trident. Contrary to myth, giving up nuclear weapons will not happen overnight or leave the United Kingdom naked and vulnerable. It is high time to recognize their irrelevance and start planning for a safely managed transition to a more relevant security approach, with a more appropriate allocation of defense resources.
Rebecca Johnson is executive director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, London. The author thanks Nicola Butler and Stephen Pullinger for research contributions to this article, which will be elaborated in a forthcoming report by Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Butler, and Stephen Pullinger, “‘Worse than Irrelevant’: British Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century.”
7. Article VI and preambular paragraphs 8-12, Para 15, sub-para 6, found in Final Document of the 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, NPT/CONF.2000/28 (Vol. 1, Parts I and II), May 25, 2000. For a detailed analysis of negotiations at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, see Rebecca Johnson, “The 2000 NPT Review Conference: A Delicate, Hard-Won Compromise,” Disarmament Diplomacy no. 46 (May 2000), pp. 2-21.
8. Rabinder Singh QC and Christine Chinkin, “Mutual Defence Agreement and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Joint Advice,” July 20, 2004; Rabinder Singh QC and Christine Chinkin, “The Maintenance and Possible Replacement of the Trident Nuclear Missile System,” December 19, 2005. It should be noted that both of these works were published by Matrix Chambers, one of the foremost law firms in the United Kingdom, co-founded by Cherie Booth QC, Blair’s wife, who remains a member.