British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently unveiled a plan to extend until about midcentury his country’s possession of a slimmed-down nuclear weapons arsenal. British lawmakers will vote as early as March on the initiative.
The United Kingdom deploys about 200 nuclear warheads aboard four Vanguard-class submarines. Launched separately between 1992 and 1998, these submarines will start reaching the end of their service lifetimes in the early 2020s.
Blair ruled out letting the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons capability expire along with the current submarine fleet. Describing British nuclear weapons as the “ultimate insurance,” he said Dec. 4, 2006, that it would be “unwise and dangerous” to give them up under current conditions and uncertainty about the future.
Still, Blair proposed that the active force could be trimmed down to less than 160 warheads and maybe three submarines. The prime minister’s plan also envisions a 20 percent cut in the backup warhead stockpile, the size of which is secret.
Blair’s government estimates that designing and building the first replacement submarine will require 17 years. Hence, a decision to begin such an effort, according to the government, must be made this year to be able to continue in 2024 the current practice of always having one submarine on patrol.
Another decision that Blair says must be made this year is whether to participate in the U.S. life extension program for the submarine-launched Trident D5 ballistic missile. British and U.S. submarines are outfitted with this missile, which is currently calculated to last until around 2020. The life extension program is supposed to prolong the missile’s service 20 more years.
The government detailed its case for extending the existing nuclear posture in a 40-page white paper, “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent.” This December 2006 report cites the maintenance and modernization of nuclear arsenals by other major powers, the possibility of additional countries joining the nuclear club, and the threat of nuclear terrorism as reasons for preserving British nuclear forces. “We can only deter such threats in [the] future through the continued possession of nuclear weapons,” the report declares.
Blair acknowledged that terrorists most likely would not be dissuaded by the threat of nuclear attack or retaliation, but implied that such considerations could influence regimes that might aid terrorists. The report asserts that “any state that [the British government] can hold responsible for assisting a nuclear attack on our vital interests can expect that this would lead to a proportionate response.” French President Jacques Chirac enunciated a similar policy a year ago. (See ACT, March 2006.)
In general, the report maintains that the use of British nuclear arms would be considered “only in extreme circumstances” of self-defense or of protecting fellow members of the 26-nation NATO alliance. The government will “deliberately maintain ambiguity about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate use of our nuclear deterrent,” the report states.
Keeping with this policy, the report notes that the United Kingdom reserves the option of using nuclear weapons first. China and India are the only two nuclear-armed countries that publicly say they will not do so.
Although the report registers concern about biological and chemical weapons, it stresses the “uniquely terrible threat” that nuclear arms pose and emphasizes that the British nuclear force’s “focus is on preventing nuclear attack.” A British government official told Arms Control Today Dec. 8 that “the reason why we keep a nuclear deterrent” is the possession of nuclear weapons by other states.
South Africa, which announced in 1993 that it had secretly accrued and then disposed of six completed nuclear weapons, criticized Blair’s proposal as “disappointing.” In a Dec. 5 press release, the South African Foreign Ministry argued London missed an “opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the irreversible elimination of its nuclear weapons arsenal, consistent with its nuclear disarmament obligations and commitments.”
Article VI of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligates the United Kingdom, as well as China, France, Russia, and the United States, to work toward disarmament. Moreover, the five countries pledged in 2000 at an NPT review conference to “an unequivocal undertaking…to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”
The white paper defends Blair’s proposal as consistent with British commitments. It states, “We believe this is the right balance between our commitment to a world in which there is no place for nuclear weapons and our responsibilities to protect the current and future citizens” of the United Kingdom.
Blair contended that British nuclear disarmament would not be reciprocated by other governments and, therefore, was impractical. “Unfortunately there is no evidence that any major nuclear power would follow such an example,” Blair argued. “And, as for the new, would-be nuclear powers, it really would be naïve to think that they would be influenced by a purely British decision.”
Then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a different argument just days before Blair’s comments. Annan said Nov. 28 that the retention of nuclear weapons by some countries might motivate others to acquire such arms. “By clinging to and modernizing their own arsenals…nuclear-weapon states encourage others…to regard nuclear weapons as essential, both to their security and to their status,” he warned.
Such anti-nuclear weapons views used to prevail inside Blair’s ruling Labour Party, which during the 1980s supported unilateral British nuclear disarmament. But the revival of the party’s fortunes in the 1990s and the election of Blair have been attributed in part to Labour dropping its disarmament stand.
Although some Labour lawmakers in the House of Commons have signaled they will break with Blair in the upcoming nuclear vote, the party’s main rival, the Conservative Party, backs Blair’s proposal. Conservative leader David Cameron stated after Blair’s announcement, “This is our only nuclear weapon, it is a minimum deterrent, and we have the right to replace it.”The government explored replacement options other than new submarines, but these alternatives, including long-range aircraft and land-based silos, were rejected as more vulnerable and expensive. The government projects that procuring up to four new submarines will cost between $29 billion and $39 billion and extending the Trident’s lifetime will total nearly $500 million.