The United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons policy is in flux as the country debates whether to replace its current Trident strategic nuclear weapons system and remain in the nuclear weapons business for another generation.
Choices about nuclear weapons are certain to feature in the next general election in May 2015. The debate is deeply political and parochial, but also involves a much broader set of issues related to nuclear deterrence and steps toward nuclear disarmament. Some of this debate came to a head with the publication of the government’s “Trident Alternatives Review” in July. This article examines the political issues surrounding the report and sets them in the broader context of deterrence and disarmament.
Current UK policy is to have a single Vanguard-class submarine on patrol somewhere in the Atlantic ready to fire as many as 40 highly accurate thermonuclear warheads on U.S.-designed and -built Trident II (D-5) ballistic missiles within days, or even hours, of a prime ministerial decision. (“Trident” technically refers to the missile, but the term is used in the UK to mean the entire system.) Four such submarines are based at the Faslane naval base in Scotland that enable the UK to have one permanently at sea in a posture called continuous at-sea deterrence.
The submarines were commissioned into service between 1994 and 2001 and will begin to reach the end of their service lives in the early 2020s. Trident is now the UK’s only nuclear weapons system after the country divested itself of gravity bombs, theater nuclear weapons, and forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons during the 1990s and 2000s. If the submarines are not replaced in some form, the UK will effectively cease to be a nuclear-weapon state.
In 2006 the Labour government under Tony Blair gave the green light to a long, expensive, and controversial process of replacing the Trident system with a “like-for-like” capability starting with the procurement of a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, then a new warhead, and a new U.S. missile much later still. A decision was needed at that time because a new submarine would take approximately 17 years to design and deploy. In May 2010, the Labour government was voted out of office and replaced by a coalition government comprising Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the latter as the junior party.
The Liberal Democrats had never accepted the case for a like-for-like replacement. They have long argued that the UK no longer requires such a “fantastically expensive insurance policy” procured in the depths of the Cold War to flatten Moscow and other major Russian cities or, to use more diplomatic language, “hold at risk key centres of Soviet state power.” The world had moved on, and at a time of severe pressure on government spending, including the defense budget, it was surely right to question the logic of committing 25 billion pounds to a new fleet of submarines in this “age of austerity.” Nevertheless, “unilateral nuclear disarmament” has become a pejorative term in Westminster politics ever since Labour’s sojourn in the political wilderness in the 1980s partly as a result of its electorally unpopular platform of relinquishing nuclear weapons. In 2005 the Liberal Democrat leadership began instead to make the case for a middle way: a smaller, cheaper nuclear weapons system more in keeping with the geopolitical realities of today’s complex conflicts.
Once in government, the Liberal Democrats successfully pushed back the main spending decision on the new submarines (the “main gate” decision, in Ministry of Defence jargon) from 2014 to 2016, which is after the next general election. The party also negotiated an agreement with the Conservatives to undertake a review to determine if the program was providing sufficient “value for money.” That assessment was part of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. The accord between the two parties also called for an in-depth, formal government study of alternatives to a like-for-like replacement of the Trident system.
The Trident Alternatives Review
The alternatives review was initiated in May 2011, and after some delay, the report was published in July of this year. The document presents a hierarchy of nuclear postures at decreasing levels of operational readiness. The first two postures are the current “continuous deterrence” and “focussed deterrence,” the latter based on continuous deterrence for a specific period against a specific adversary. Absent a specific threat, the system would be maintained at “reduced readiness.” Three reduced readiness postures are outlined: “sustained deterrence,” “responsive deterrence,” and “preserved deterrence,” at progressively lower levels of readiness and ability to return to the higher levels.
The review then applies these postures to four delivery systems: the combination of a Trident ballistic missile with a missile-carrying submarine, a new cruise missile and warhead deployed aboard the UK’s new Astute-class attack submarines, a nuclear bomb or a stealthy or supersonic cruise missile for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter the UK is procuring from the United States, and a stealthy cruise missile for a new large aircraft. The report concludes that “there are alternatives to Trident that would enable the UK to be capable of inflicting significant damage such that most potential adversaries around the world would be deterred.”
The Liberal Democrats had initially championed the idea of arming Astute-class attack submarines, which currently are equipped to fire U.S. conventionally armed Tomahawk cruise missiles, with a new nuclear-tipped cruise missile. The report states, however, that this would be more expensive than replacing the Trident system on an equivalent basis because of the cost and time of developing a new cruise missile warhead—24 years, according to the report. This would exceed the service life of the current submarines and require building two new ballistic missile submarines to cover the gap until a new cruise missile could be deployed.
With that option no longer economically and politically viable, the Liberal Democrats now appear set to support a reduced version of the current system by ending the outdated requirement for continuous patrols, building two or three instead of four new submarines, further reducing the stockpile of missiles and warheads, and perhaps exploring the possibility of using the submarines in roles beyond a dedicated nuclear mission. Ending continuous patrols would also ease pressure on overstretched submarine crews and alleviate ongoing problems in recruitment and retention. In fact, a variant of the current Trident system represents the path of least technical, financial, and political resistance in any discussion of alternatives. The Liberal Democrats debated their defense and nuclear policies for their 2015 general election manifesto at their party conference in September in Glasgow—an interesting choice given the anti-Trident sentiment of the Scottish electorate—and passed the leadership’s motion to support this policy.
Conservative Party leaders remain committed to nuclear business as usual. They insist it is essential to continuously deploy a very sophisticated nuclear capability of global reach aboard a fleet of dedicated submarines. Anything less than such “essential protection” risks fatally undermining the nation’s security, they argue. The Conservatives will use the report to delegitimize a middle way as dangerous, naive, or incompetent in favor of their preferred default position.
The big political question is how Labour will respond. When Ed Miliband was elected leader of the party, he said the UK now needs “to look very carefully at whether renewing Trident is the necessary or the right thing to do.” There is now an active debate. Some former defense secretaries in the party, such as George Robertson and John Hutton, are firmly in favor of a like-for-like replacement. Others, such as Des Browne, are in favor of dropping continuous at-sea deterrence but still retaining nuclear weapons. Former Chief Whip Nick Brown and many backbenchers support relinquishing nuclear weapons altogether.
Miliband confirmed at the party conference in October 2012 that Labour’s policy on Trident replacement would be revisited after the publication of the alternatives report and another report by the British American Security Information Council’s Trident Commission. The commission is an independent cross-party body established in 2011 to review UK nuclear weapons policy and led by Browne (now a Labour peer in the House of Lords) and two current members of Parliament, Malcolm Rifkind (Conservative) and Menzies Campbell (Liberal Democrat). With the former report now published and the latter due in early 2014, Miliband will face a difficult choice: stick with the Blair and Tory plan of like-for-like replacement or pursue an alternative nuclear posture.
There is more at stake in the Trident debate than domestic electoral positioning. Anything other than a direct like-for-like replacement of the current system will mean rethinking the commitment to continuous at-sea deterrence. This, in turn, means rethinking conceptions of what constitutes a credible and effective minimum deterrent threat and could have wider ramifications.
There are a number of conceptions of nuclear deterrence, differing in elements such as force size, posture, and adversarial context. These conceptions can be seen as existing on a spectrum whose contours can be sketched from the nuclear histories of nuclear-armed states.
At one end lies the maximum deterrence practiced by the United States during the Cold War. This version based effective, credible deterrence on nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, using a range of nuclear forces from nuclear shells for frontline troops to helicopter-borne nuclear depth bombs. The next step along the spectrum moves toward current conceptions of Chinese, French, and UK minimum deterrence. These involve warheads numbers in the low hundreds, a general rejection of nuclear weapons as war-fighting tools, and a limited number of roles for nuclear weapons. Further down the spectrum, one encounters the so-called recessed form of nuclear deterrence practiced by India through the 1980s and 1990s based on nonweaponization of its nascent nuclear weapons capability. This approach was judged to exert a sufficient deterrent effect on Pakistan based on the mere possibility that major aggression could result in a nuclear encounter.
Moving further along the spectrum, one goes from nondeployment to nonproduction of nuclear weapons. A “virtual” deterrent effect is exerted at this point through a proven but disassembled nuclear arsenal capable of reconstitution and redeployment within a specific time frame. Further yet, the spectrum reaches the notion of weaponless deterrence, which envisages zero nuclear weapons or components but a residual military nuclear industrial base that could, over time, generate or regenerate a basic deliverable nuclear capability.
1. See Li Bin, “China’s Potential to Contribute to Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament,” Arms Control Today, March 2011.
2. See George Perkovich, “Trip Report: Pakistan and India,” September 10-12, 1992, pp. 5-6.
3. Michael Mazarr, ‘The Notion of Virtual Arsenals,” in Nuclear Weapons in a Transformed World: The Challenge of Virtual Nuclear Arsenals, ed. Michael Mazarr (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).
4. Jonathan Schell, The Abolition (London: Picador, 1984).
UK nuclear weapons policy has long been characterized as one of minimum deterrence. The country has a comparatively small nuclear arsenal that is restricted to a single delivery system for strategic, as opposed to war-fighting, purposes. In addition, the UK has established a series of declaratory constraints on the circumstances in which it would consider using or threatening to use its nuclear weapons.
The prevailing wisdom in London is that a credible and effective threat requires an assured capability to retaliate against a strategic attack in any and all conceivable circumstances. Because no one has a crystal ball, this argument runs, there is no guarantee that the UK never will face a direct threat that could be countered only through an assurance of nuclear retaliation. Therefore, the UK should retain its current capability, just in case. Any sign of vulnerability, any chink in the nuclear armor, could have catastrophic consequences in a crisis.
This translates into a requirement for highly accurate ballistic missiles of global reach capable of delivering dozens of thermonuclear warheads from a nuclear delivery platform on continuous alert that is invulnerable to a “bolt from the blue” first strike. If the UK government still considers it essential to permanently deploy strategic nuclear weapons on alert at sea, then keeping the current arrangement is the obvious choice, particularly given the cost efficiencies and risk reduction that come with being embedded in a much bigger U.S. Trident program.
This orthodoxy, however, has been challenged in the current debate. Skepticism abounds as to the strategic necessity of maintaining the current nuclear posture. When Trident was originally procured in the early 1980s, Defence Secretary John Nott said its purpose was to provide “an ultimate defence of this country against a nuclear strike, a pre-emptive strike by a nuclear power.” The only country that can deliver such an attack against the UK now and for the foreseeable future is Russia.
Yet, 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. Indeed the UK government acknowledges that the country faces no major, direct nuclear threat and has not since the early 1990s when it stopped targeting its nuclear weapons at Russia on a day-to-day basis. That is about one-third of the time that the UK, which first tested a nuclear weapon in 1952, has been a nuclear-weapon state.
Adherents of the nuclear orthodoxy see an ongoing requirement to maintain strategic nuclear weapons on permanent high alert as an ultimate “insurance” against existential military threats to the state. Inescapable uncertainty creates an enduring need for strategic nuclear weapons, advocates of this view argue. Yet for many in the UK, the strategic security case does not add up.
This has led many to question the necessity of the Trident system and the continuous at-sea deterrence posture and to explore a range of alternative nuclear postures and systems that open up when these requirements are dropped. In fact, the alternatives review was established to push the envelope of what constitutes a credible capability at varying degrees of readiness below continuous at-sea deterrence. This requires a different conception of credibility that says an effective nuclear deterrent threat does not require 100 percent certainty of retaliation. Instead, the very presence of nuclear weapons in a country under attack or threatened with attack, together with the uncertainty of total success in any pre-emptive attack, will induce sufficient caution into adversarial relations if one believes in the logic of nuclear deterrence at all. This view of nuclear deterrence argues that as long as a country has a proven ability to deploy nuclear weapons, the size of the stockpile and the ability to deliver them against an adversary are of secondary concern.
The fundamental core of nuclear deterrence lies in the possession of the weapons. Shai Feldman, a scholar of nuclear weapons and the Middle East, has concluded that Saddam Hussein “probably” was deterred from attacking Israel with ballistic missiles armed with chemical warheads in 1991 “not by the certainty that Israel would retaliate with nuclear weapons, but rather by his inability to rule out this possibility.” This supports the observation in 2006 by Michael Quinlan, former UK permanent undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Defence, that “[e]ven a modest chance of a huge penalty can have great deterrent force,” assuming, of course, an aggressor is deterrable.
One therefore can think of nuclear deterrence not as an either/or dichotomy (either do deterrence this way or have zero deterrent effect) but as a spectrum. The debate over the Trident review has opened up the possibility of shifting UK ideas of minimum deterrence further along that spectrum (see box).
This challenges the idea of an objective set of criteria for nuclear deterrence and instead more accurately characterizes it as a subjective political assessment. It is worth noting two things in this regard. First, ending continuous at-sea deterrence is not a new or outrageous idea. In the current debate, Browne, former Chief of the Defence Staff Charles Guthrie, former Foreign Secretary David Owen, and Quinlan all have questioned the strategic necessity of continuous at-sea deterrence. Second, many of the criteria for minimum deterrence are defined by the capabilities of the current Trident II missile system, which was procured from the United States in the early 1980s, rather than deduced from an abstract theory of nuclear deterrence.
A UK decision to end continuous at-sea deterrence and move the country’s collective notion of minimum deterrence a notch or two down the spectrum would have implications beyond the country’s borders. Pressure for serious progress toward nuclear disarmament is increasing as non-nuclear-weapon states become ever more frustrated with slow progress by the nuclear-weapon states toward nuclear disarmament as one review after another for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) rolls by. The non-nuclear-weapon states are looking for significant steps that will radically devalue nuclear weapons in the security policies of the weapon states.
This means qualitative changes in prevailing nuclear doctrine as an essential component of a nuclear disarmament process and indicator of the nuclear-weapon states’ commitment to that goal alongside quantitative changes in nuclear numbers. The non-nuclear-weapon states elicited such a commitment at the 2010 NPT Review Conference when, in the meeting’s final document, the treaty parties formally agreed “[t]o further diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies” as part of a 64-point action plan.
Reducing the readiness of nuclear forces, or de-alerting, is part of a package of measures long advocated by non-nuclear-weapon states to diminish the role of nuclear weapons. Ending continuous at-sea deterrence in the UK and adopting a “reduced readiness” posture would constitute an important qualitative change in nuclear posture and a crucial next step in reducing the value of nuclear weapons.
Such a move would be in keeping with the UK’s self-identification as the most forward leaning of the nuclear-weapon states on nuclear disarmament. London has taken a number of important steps to reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal and increase transparency of its production of fissile materials and warhead numbers. It has modified its declaratory policy by further restricting the circumstances under which it might consider using nuclear weapons. It has ended nuclear testing, ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, ended production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons, and declared its full commitment to a nuclear-weapon-free world and supported a number of initiatives toward that end.
An opportunity now exists for the UK to continue on this trajectory and demonstrate international leadership in new ways. In particular, it could take concrete steps to further diminish the salience of UK nuclear weapons in national security policy by reducing the size and operational readiness of its nuclear arsenal. This is eminently plausible in an era of negligible military threats to the survival of the UK. Furthermore, none of the main political parties in Westminster are advocating UK nuclear disarmament. The current debate over the alternatives review is about the more limited aim of rethinking nuclear deterrence with a view to reducing the salience of these weapons while retaining the capability to deploy them within a specific period of time should a major military threat to the survival of the state ever re-emerge.
Additional constraints on UK nuclear weapons policy could set important precedents for progress toward complete nuclear disarmament by establishing new norms of deterrence doctrine and practice for one of the five original nuclear-weapon states and one of the three depositary states of the NPT. Such a move would clearly indicate that the UK no longer sees a compelling reason to deploy nuclear weapons for immediate use but is temporarily retaining them, pending their global elimination.
A posture that abandons continuous at-sea deterrence would all but eliminate any intention to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis. Such a posture would reinforce political and legal commitments to non-nuclear-weapon states and provide a degree of strategic reassurance to other possessors of nuclear weapons that the UK is confident that it is not going to face a nuclear attack and therefore can scale back its reliance on nuclear weapons. It would signify an important “de-coupling” of nuclear weapons from the broad, day-to-day calculus of national security by demonstrating that the UK is prepared to learn to live without nuclear weapons operationally deployed at sea on a permanent basis as a precursor to learning to live without nuclear weapons at all.
Nick Ritchie is a lecturer in international security at the University of York in the United Kingdom. This article draws on themes developed in his book A Nuclear Weapons-Free World? Britain, Trident, and the Challenges Ahead (2012).
1. UK Cabinet Office, “Trident Alternatives Review,” July 16, 2013, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/212745/20130716_Trident_Alternatives_Study.pdf.
4. “Policy Options for the Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Weapons,” 2010, http://www.libdems.org.uk/siteFiles/resources/docs/News/MCTrident%20Review.pdf.
5. Nick Hopkins, “Trident Replacement Plans Are Based on Outdated Ideas, Says Former Minister,” The Guardian, April 22, 2013 (citing Nick Harvey, member of Parliament for the Liberal Democrat party, then minister for armed forces in the Ministry of Defence).
6. David Owen, Nuclear Papers (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), p. 48 (quoting Michael Quinlan, “The Future United Kingdom Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Force,” Defence Open Government Document 80/23, July 1980).
7. Many figures have been cited in relation to the Trident replacement program. The government stated in 2011 that the projected capital cost of the “successor” submarines (not the warheads, missiles, or new infrastructure) is 25 billion pounds (at the time of spending). See UK Ministry of Defence, “The United Kingdom’s Future Nuclear Deterrent: The Submarine Initial Gate Parliamentary Report,” 2011, p. 10.
8. For the rescheduling of the submarine program and results of the value-for-money review, see UK Government, “Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review,” Cm 7948 (2010), http://www.direct.gov.uk/prod_consum_dg/groups/dg_digitalassets/@dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_191639.pdf.
10. Nick Ritchie, “Stepping Down the Nuclear Ladder: Options for Trident on a Path to Zero,” Bradford Disarmament Research Centre Briefing Paper, No. 5 (May 2009), http://www.york.ac.uk/media/politics/documents/research/Trident_Options.pdf.
11. Nigel Morris, “Lib Dem Conference: Members Back Nuclear Deterrent Alternative to Trident,” The Independent, September 17, 2013; Danny Alexander, “On Trident, We’re Still Fighting the Cold War,” The Independent on Sunday, July 21, 2013.
16. George Robertson and John Hutton, “There Is No Magic Alternative to Trident—Britain Has Got to Keep It,” The Telegraph, February 28, 2013; Des Browne and Ian Kearns, “Trident Is No Longer Key to Britain’s Security,” The Daily Telegraph, February 5, 2013; Nick Brown, “Dropping Trident Will Lead to a Richer, Safer Britain,” New Statesman, June 21, 2012.
17. “Miliband Trident Review Stance Welcomed,” DefenceManagement.com, October 4, 2012, http://www.defencemanagement.com/news_story.asp?id=21058. For details of the BASIC Trident Commission, see http://www.basicint.org/tridentcommission/.
23. For the review’s terms of reference, see http://data.parliament.uk/DepositedPapers/Files/DEP2011-0825/DEP2011-0825.zip (file containing Trident Alternatives Review terms of reference).
27. UK House of Lords, Official Report, March 26, 2009, col. 806 (Guthrie); Owen, Nuclear Papers, p. 13; Browne and Kearns, “Trident Is No Longer Key to Britain’s Security”; Michael Quinlan, “The Future of United Kingdom Nuclear Weapons,” International Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 4 (2006), p. 636.
Purely in weight of strike potential, the United Kingdom could have been content with less than Trident could offer, even in C4 version originally chosen (let alone D5 version to which the United Kingdom switched in early 1982, when it had become clear that the United States was committed to proceed with its acquisition and deployment). The original choice and the switch were driven in large measure by the long-term financial and logistic benefits of commonality with the United States. After the end of the Cold War, the United Kingdom announced a series of discretionary reductions in warhead load to well below what Trident was capable of carrying.
Michael Quinlan, “The British Experience,” in Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice, ed. Henry D. Sokolski (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, November 2004), p. 271.
32. Michael Mazarr, “Nuclear Doctrine and Virtual Nuclear Arsenals,” in Nuclear Weapons in a Transformed World: The Challenge of Virtual Nuclear Arsenals, ed. Michael Mazarr (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 47.