human rights technology

What are Britain’s nuclear weapons for?

Over the last three years, an all-party group of politicians and experts called the Trident Commission has been thinking about Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and they delivered their final report last week. They’ve been looking at the following three questions:

  • Should the United Kingdom continue to be a nuclear weapons state?
  • If so, is Trident the only or best option for delivering the deterrent?
  • What more can and should the United Kingdom do to facilitate faster progress on global nuclear disarmament?

I’ve written before about why I am mystified by Britain’s ongoing insistence in holding nuclear weapons. (And note, this is about Britain’s weapons, not nuclear weapons as a whole) To summarise, Britain doesn’t have a system of its own, but leases missiles from the US. We pay the US for the privilege of sailing around with them and feeling important, but we’re not an independent nuclear power. The commission admits this. “For anyone who wishes to question the true independence of the British nuclear deterrent I would concede that it is… a hostage to American goodwill”.

submarineWe have our four submarines and 160 warheads, to the 1,500+ that the Americans have and the 2,000 that the Russians possess. If anyone is being deterred by the existence of nuclear weapons, it is not Britain they are afraid of.

Neither is there anyone in the world who we need to independently deter. All the powers that might conceivably wish ill upon Britain are also enemies of the US and most of the West. I dread to think what would need to happen to Britain’s international relations before we ended up in a situation where we actually needed our own independent deterrent. We’d need to be as isolated as North Korea.

It seems to me that the only purpose for Britain’s nuclear weapons is the kudos of being part of the ‘nuclear club’. And in an age of austerity, the £2.9 billion a year that we need to pay for that particular membership card looks like an obvious saving.

Since I genuinely haven’t heard a decent case for keeping Britain’s nuclear weapons, I downloaded the Trident Commission’s report to see what the experts see that I don’t.

The commission summarises its viewpoint thus: “If there is more than a negligible chance that the possession of nuclear weapons might play a decisive future role in the defence of the United Kingdom and its allies, in preventing nuclear blackmail, or in affecting the wider security context within which the UK sits, then they should be retained.”

Fair enough, so is there a ‘more than negligible chance’ of such a thing? The paper admits that nuclear weapons only deter a very narrow band of threats – they’re no good against terrorists, for example, and only work against enemy states that aren’t your neighbours. Really, the report concludes that there are only really three possible threats that would apply:

  1. A newly aggressive Russia.
  2. “An existing or emerging nuclear-armed state that attains global reach and enters into direct strategic competition with the UK”
  3. A future hypothetical scenario in which “bio-weapons or other comparable mass destruction technologies still unknown” are acquired by a state that may wish to use them against Britain, and may be deterred from doing so by nuclear weapons.

Let’s look at those threats in a little detail. First, the Russia question. Well, Britain is part of NATO, and leases its missiles from the US. So, in order for Britain’s warheads to serve as an independent deterrent, we’d need to see the following three things:

  1. Russia would need to return to its aggressive anti-Western stance – sadly plausible.
  2. Britain would have to have left NATO, or somehow no longer be under their protection. Unlikely, but with Cameron’s diplomacy skills, who knows?
  3. Russia would need to be mortal enemies with Britain, but good friends with the US. As long as the US and Britain are allied, the US deterrent overshadows ours to the point of irrelevancy. The gap that would need to open up between Britain and the US, and the new intimacy that we’d need to see between the US and Russia is inconceivable.

That doesn’t meet the ‘more than negligible chance’ in my book, although the commission disagrees. The same applies on the second threat. We’d need an emerging nation-state aggressor that is a genuine threat to Britain, but not to any of the other nuclear powers. Again, that’s not a threat worth £2.9 billion a year. Point three is basically the same as point two but with a hypothetical new weapon rather than nukes.

Of course, I’m assuming that the US is keeping its nuclear weapons, and that they will remain sufficiently close to Europe that a nuclear attack on European soil would concern them. Both of those seem reasonable assumptions. Perhaps it’s unfair that we should sit under their nuclear umbrella, but then why don’t we just pay a contribution and sign a treaty of protection? We’re already dependent on the US anyway. Why not save some money by scrapping the need to hire missiles and maintain our own submarines?

Still, the report disagrees. “The Commission has come to the unanimous conclusion that the UK should retain and deploy a nuclear arsenal.” It has some caveats, such as reducing the number of warheads and reconsidering the need to have them on constant patrol, but they are nevertheless in favour.

And then you get one of the most bizarre justifications for nuclear weapons I have ever heard. The commission bends over backwards to say that being part of the nuclear club shouldn’t be an influence on our decision, because ascribing kudos to nuclear weapons means everybody will want one. However, if Britain gave up its nukes, we wouldn’t be able to take a lead in the disarmament discussion:

“In terms of international diplomatic or strategic influence, the UK’s continued possession of nuclear weapons would only be relevant to the specific objective of maintaining a seat at the nuclear disarmament negotiating table amongst nuclear weapon states. Though possession is not legally required for nuclear weapon status under the NPT, it is doubtful that the UK would retain continuing influence on the thinking or process of nuclear negotiations if it ceased all its nuclear weapon activities.”

Seriously? We should renew our nuclear weapons programme so that we can continue to lead the world in discussing how to give up nuclear weapons?

Let me return finally to the budget question, and the matter of priorities. There have been cuts to military spending recently, and job losses across the forces. Spending will be lower in future, and the Commission forecasts that committing to a new round of Trident will consume 20-30% of the entire MOD budget through the 2020s. Stop and think about that for a second. We’d be spending 30% of the budget on a tiny band of threats, running our Cold War model of risk management into the middle of this century, when the real threats to Britain are widely recognised to be from terrorism and cyberwarfare. If we renew Trident, we’re committing ourselves to massively imbalanced spending for decades, and the Commission warns that “important defence projects currently in the pipeline will surely suffer delay or cancellation” as Trident eats a huge slice of the budget. And yet, still, they think we should do it. Odd.

I know some readers have got very exercised about this whole issue in the past, so let me just say again: all of this is about the need for Britain to have a perceived ‘independent’ deterrent. It’s not an argument against all nuclear weapons. Although I’d want that to be our long term goal, I think there are necessary intermediate steps – such as holding a nuclear deterrent through NATO for example rather than wasting our money by duplicating the threat. Or we could pool our nuclear programme with the French. After all, we already share aircraft carriers.

I’ve read the report, and I’m really still none the wiser. The report is full of very good reasons not to bother renewing Trident, and yet it still comes out in favour. So my initial question remains unanswered – can anyone tell me what Britain’s nuclear weapons are actually for?


  1. Jeremy,
    Let me comment here as an American. I think it is important for US Allies to shoulder their portion of the burden of defending The West/Free World/Democracy. What ever you want to call it. Leasing these weapons from the US seems wise to me.
    In the US we have the toxic factories that make these weapons. You get to avoid that environmental mess. The cost for the UK to make their own would probably be 10x when you consider R&D, manufacturing, securing related faciliteis etc.
    As an American I feel that Europe should shoulder more of the burden of NATO. I think the US should be closing bases in Europe so that the US can save money. Russian tanks are no longer massed on the German border. It’s time to brings the boys home.
    When I see France leading the way in Africa, I applaud them. I do not see America leading from the back as weakness. We cannot lead every campaign, but we can lend support like the Germans did in Afghanistan. I see this as a wise use of our resources – which are not endless.
    I may have my facts wrong, but when I heard that the French Airforce could not sustain a campaign over Lybia for more than a few weeks I was appalled.
    The US may be “special” or what ever they call it. I don’t think we need to retreat from the world, but we need to start relying more on our partners around the world such as the UK, Germany, Japan etc.
    You having nukes is part of that partnership and shared burden. We’ll bury the toxic left overs from making those missiles, we just need you to keep them deployed.

    1. Imarunner2012. You may be interested that the UK does have factories for making nuclear warheads, at Aldermaston and all UK Trident warheads (the actual bombs) are UK built. UK nuclear weapons development is shared with the US and has provided many things that have been very useful to the US programme saving them billions of dollars (such as nose-cones for MIRV warheads and a much cheaper method of making sodium hexafluoride). The UK has a knack for coming up with cheaper ways of doing things.

      You make the missiles and suffer the pollution from that. We tried to make our own in the 1950-70s and spent billions.

      It is much better that we share the burden rather than leave it all the America. It is a very good point that the US is more prepared to help those who help themselves.

  2. Yes, I have no wish to see Britain free-riding on the military spending of others, however bloated that spending may be. That’s why I suggest that we should hold a deterrent in common, either through NATO channels or as an alliance with either the US or France or both.

    What I don’t understand is why Britain needs its own fire button.

    1. Well, given we rely so heavily on the US you could say we do hold our deterrent in common. I also seem to remember that the US only sold us Polaris (and Trident I think) if they were allocated ‘to NATO’ though the wording is so vague as to mean little.

      1. We do hold our deterrent in common for all intents and purposes, but pay over the odds to pretend that it’s independent. That’s the problem.

        Yes, I’m not clear on our obligations to NATO either, but I get the impression the US considers our Trident programme as a spare wheel to their deterrent.

        1. Are we paying over the odds? This discussion has brought up the fact the Americans seem to want some burden sharing in nuclear deterrence. To maintain that burden sharing there are three options:
          1) Share Trident with the US (as we now do).
          2) Develop our own as the Fench do – much more expensive
          3) Have a NATO based multilateral force, as we do with early warning planes, where they are paid for out of contributions from all NATO members and jointly staffed with firing decisions based on NATO unanimity. Kennedy did suggest something similar in the 1960s (MLF) but since no-one trusted the Germans not to slip away in submarines it would have had to be ship based and a ship based system is too vulnerable to wait for unanimous agreement. Today can you imagine the Germans or Belgians agreeing to pay for nuclear weapons? It failed in the 1960s and is even less plausible now.

          So how do we keep the Americans happy when we still want their umbrella?

          1. That Britain will do the European heavy lifting to keep the USA engaged in Europe. Free riding in security has been the Federal Republic’s aim since its foundation.

          2. Being literally between Europe and the US, and sharing a common language, it’s hardly surprising that Britain is a bridge between the two. That would be the case whether or not Germany put money into nuclear weapons.

            I think there are several key differences. Germany and Belgium quite correctly recognise that there are actually very few genuine threats to their national sovereignty. They know that with close neighbours, security can be shared and strength is in partnership rather than independence. And they don’t fight wars of aggression overseas and single themselves out as an enemy.

            I think we have an island nation mentality, and can’t help but think we have to do things ourselves. We also have a post-colonial hangover of thinking we need a big army and navy that can go and defend Britain’s interests all over the world.

          3. It is clear that the Americans are frustrated with the refusal of many European countries to do more to defend themselves. Since it would undoubtedly harm our security for America to disengage further we do need to try to show them that someone in Europe is serious about defence.

            I don’t agree we don’t face security threats. The seizure of the Crimea by Russia is a worrying sign for the future and our collective security requires supporting countries like Poland and Moldova with a credible deterrent. A strong US defence commitment through NATO is essential for that. Are you honestly saying Germany and Belgium do more to strengthen that link than the UK?

          4. Where did I say Germany and Belgium play a bigger role in defence than Britain? They clearly don’t. My point is that their whole approach to international relations is different, and their security needs reflect their foreign policy. Unlike Britain and the US, they don’t feel it is necessary to carry a big stick, and that is obviously frustrating to those that do.

            You also forget that just as Britain is the key connection between the US and Europe, Germany is a bridge country between Europe and the former USSR. Being where they are, and with their history or re-unification, they can’t play the ‘us and them’ with Russia the way we do. And if Germany were to decide to acquire nuclear weapons, it would really wind Russia up and make things a whole lot less safe, not more.

          5. So you say the UK and Germany aren’t comparable. I agree. So why are you comparing them (“but what do the Germans and the Belgians understand that we don’t?”)?

            Back to my point. If we need a nuclear burden sharing to demonstrate to the US that Europe is prepared to pull its weight (an our American friend suggested we do) how should we do it? I outlined three options as to achieving that, You haven’t said which you prefer or come up with an alternative.

          6. I’m responding to your criticism of Europe for not pulling its weight on deterrence, and arguing that Germany’s stance is a sensible one. Their not having nuclear weapons is far more important to global security than having them, so we shouldn’t accuse them of ducking the issue.

            I’ve already said what I think in the post itself. I don’t see a need for Britain to independently hold nuclear weapons, and our long term aim should be global disarmament. In the meantime, if people are scared of being without a deterrent, we should have an alliance with a nuclear power that ensures Britain is covered. The natural partner is the US. That doesn’t mean we need to have Trident and our own submarines, and we have plenty to offer the US in return (air bases, intelligence, etc). Their deterrent is already in place, so it doesn’t cost them anything they aren’t already paying, but we’d want to formalise our contribution so that we’re not assuming their protection or expecting it for free.

            As you say, NATO is a tricky one, largely because the consensus decision making process. The role of NATO is uncertain, as it has been for a couple of decades, and I don’t have any great wisdom on that.

            In the longer term, there is no reason to only think within the confines of our current institutions though. We need to be discussing how a nuclear deterrent could be held internationally. The technology is out there now, and it can never go back in the box. But that doesn’t mean we need to be content with the MAD balance that was achieved during the Cold War. An internationally held deterrent is a pretty inevitable step on the road to eliminating the nuclear threat, which is the ultimate goal of the non-proliferation treaty. Renewing Trident and carrying on as if it’s still 1980 just pushes the discussion down the road another couple of decades. It’s the lazy option, frankly, and we should be using the decision to open up new possibilities for international cooperation on the whole issue.

          7. I was rather rubbishing the idea of a NATO nuclear force rather than criticising the Germans for not having nuclear weapons.

            We already operate closely with the US over air bases and intelligence (with the UKUSA Agreement). You seem very sanguine that the Americans will be happy if we give up on somethings we do to share their load. I’m not, Imarunner2012 didn’t. If you have sponging relatives eventually you cut them off form their own good. I don’t want the US to do that to us.

            Now if we committed that in giving up Trident we would spend the same level of resources as we were going to spend on Trident on additional conventional defence for the next 30-40 years and if the US believed us, then they would probably not feel in giving up Trident we were looking to free-ride. But most of those who propose we give up Trident don’t want to make that commitment and want to spend the money on putting smiles on the faces of handicapped children while hoping the world will be lovely and everyone will give up their weapons and sing Kumbaya.

            I do think you are being very optimistic and carefree with our national security, something that is the key role of any state and should be treated with seriousness.

          8. Then, like the last time I wrote about nuclear weapons, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

            If I had to summarise my whole stance on this issue, it’s not that I think there’s any one solution that I’ve spotted and nobody else has. Far from it. What I object to is the lack of imagination, the absence of will to have a conversation about it, and major decisions about security and spending made on the basis of fear.

            I don’t see nuclear weapons as a black and white issue, but we all agree that a world without them should be our ultimate goal – as stated in the non proliferation treaty (albeit a non-binding clause). So why are we so shy of talking as if that is possible?

        2. I don’t see that the world is ready for zero disarmament yet. Quite a few countries would have to change their attitudes and dismantling our nuclear force won’t change their minds, though our deterrent will deter them.

          There are conversations about security but that alternatives aren’t plausible right now. The attitude “There must be an alternative, I just don’t know what it is” isn’t very convincing, especially on security policy. If you get that wrong the consequences are catastrophic so there is little appetite for experimentation.

          1. I don’t think the world is ready for zero disarmament either, which is why I’m happy to talk about intermediate steps. The problem is the scale of the decision and the long time frames involved. Its the government’s fault for endlessly putting off the decision to be fair, and then rushing it, but we’re making decisions for decades ahead and should be prepared to think long term.

            I don’t think my view is a reckless one. The Trident Commission has outlined the very narrow bands of risk that our deterrent applies to, and I’ve detailed those in the post. Obviously you’re entitled to come to different conclusions, as the Commission somehow does when looking at the same threat.

  3. I would like to see Britain move away from the European Union, however in the case of defence I would favour a central military policy that would better benefit all 27 EU nations against an outside threat. It is nevertheless a sad reflection of our times that such deterrants are still needed. WWW3 would probably see the end of life as we know Jim.

  4. One thing Trump is good for, winning the argument on Trident.

    You set three tests that would need to be passed to justify renewing Trident:

    1: Russia would need to return to its aggressive anti-Western stance.
    2: Britain would have to have left NATO, or somehow no longer be under their protection.
    3: Russia would need to be mortal enemies with Britain, but good friends with the US.

    You saw 1 as plausible but 2and 3 highly unlikely to inconceivable. Well with Breast and Trump’s lack of commitment to NATO two looks a lot more plausible and with the Trump-Putin bromance 3 isn’t inconceivable either.

    This is why we keep Trident even in good times because we can’t see 30 years ahead and don’t risk the country on ‘oh that will never happen’ smart alecs

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