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”.
We 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:
- A newly aggressive Russia.
- “An existing or emerging nuclear-armed state that attains global reach and enters into direct strategic competition with the UK”
- 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:
- Russia would need to return to its aggressive anti-Western stance – sadly plausible.
- Britain would have to have left NATO, or somehow no longer be under their protection. Unlikely, but with Cameron’s diplomacy skills, who knows?
- 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?