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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 17, July - August 1997

Britain, Trident and Disarmament

By Stephen Pullinger


On 1 May the British Labour Party broke its run of four successive election defeats and wrested political power from the Conservatives. After eighteen years out of office, many will be unsure what to expect from the new Blair-led Government, not least in its approach to nuclear weapons and disarmament.

After a flirtation with radical anti-nuclearism, encapsulated in a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, Labour has now returned full-circle to its previous commitment to maintain a British nuclear capability and to endorse multilateralism as the preferred means of achieving disarmament.

Two principal reasons explain this about-face. First, unilateralism proved very unpopular with British voters - many believe that it contributed significantly to Labour's two heavy poll defeats in the 1980s. Second, Labour reached the conclusion that the best way to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world was through a negotiated, verifiable international treaty, rather than via a series of unilateral actions.

As Dr. John Reid, now Minister of State for the Armed Forces, told the 1995 Labour Party Conference, it was a question "not of whether we would like a nuclear-free world but how we achieve it." Speaking in favour of multilateralism and against unilateralism, he said that the former offers the prospect of Labour leading others in a worldwide solution - not opting out of the process... you can't solve a world-wide problem by nationalising it."

Hence, last year's Foreign and Defence policy document stated:

"Labour is actively committed to a nuclear-weapons-free world. In government we will actively pursue further measures of mutual, balanced and verifiable reduction in nuclear weapons worldwide." (1)

Part of the longer-term challenge for the new Labour Government will be to persuade the British people that it should negotiate away a weapon which has come to be regarded as a symbol of their country's military and political power and importance. Nuclear deterrence is a doctrine that has become ingrained in the national psyche: the ultimate protection of the vital national interests of the State itself.

Yet, an opinion poll in 1995 offers the Labour Government hope that its approach may command widespread popular support. It indicated that 59% supported a multilateral route to elimination (compared to 14% in favour of unilateralism and 23% for retaining British nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future). (2)

Those within the Party who had always believed in nuclear deterrence and the importance of Britain maintaining its own nuclear capability are delighted at this return to 'realism'. But a sizeable minority retains its strong anti-nuclear convictions and, although now marginalised by the Party leadership, some will continue to voice their dissent at the new line.

Britain's new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, put his Party firmly back in the pro-deterrence camp last year when responding to the key question of whether he would be prepared to actually use Britain's nuclear weapons: "You do have to be prepared to use it and I do make that clear." (3)

Labour's Nuclear Legacy

The new Labour Government has inherited a state-of-the-art nuclear weapon - the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Two of the four planned Vanguard-class submarines designed to carry Trident are now operational, with the third due to enter service in 1998, and the fourth around the turn of the Century. At present, each of these submarines is loaded with a total explosive firepower equivalent to some 300 Hiroshima-sized bombs, capable of inflicting almost unimaginable death and destruction on a scale unprecedented in the history of warfare. Although, relative to the United States and Russia, Britain will remain only a minor nuclear power, it is worth remembering the enormity of this destructive capability.

Britain's few remaining sub-strategic WE-177 free-fall nuclear bombs are due to be withdrawn from service by the end of March next year (to coincide with the entry into service of the third Trident boat). Their role will be performed instead by reduced-yield, single-warhead Trident missiles. Some such missiles may already have been deployed alongside the MIRVed (multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicle) strategic missiles.

Labour's Armed Forces Minister quickly acknowledged his Government's endorsement of the sub-strategic role, arguing that it "would allow the limited use of nuclear weapons to send an aggressor a political message of the Alliance's resolve to defend itself"(4).

Although greater enthusiasm for disarmament from Britain alone would, by definition, be insufficient to secure global nuclear elimination, a change of attitude on the part of one of the five declared nuclear-weapon States could have a significant impact on the climate of debate and likelihood of serious progress. So, what role can Britain now be expected to play?

Practical Steps Forward
Multilateral Disarmament

The new Government will include Britain's nuclear weapons in multilateral negotiations "when satisfied with verified progress towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons..." (5)

As Labour Spokespersons have given no indication that they will act independently of the currently bilateral (US-Russia) Strategic Arms Reduction (START) process, this suggests that Britain may well not enter its nuclear weapons into negotiations for some years to come - probably not until START IV.

Reduction in Warheads

In its recent policy document, Labour said that in government it would work for a number of associated nuclear arms control efforts. Perhaps its most significant commitment is to work for "a freeze on nuclear warhead numbers. As a first step we will ensure that Trident carries no more warheads than [its predecessor] Polaris." (6) Although Labour has since included an examination of warhead numbers as part of its Strategic Defence Review process, it would be astonishing if the new government were to renege on such a clear policy pledge.

Assuming Labour does implement this policy what might it mean in practice? The Conservative Government's policy was to deploy Trident with up to 96 warheads per boat, giving a potential of 288 warheads in total (only three of the four boats are ever loaded at any one time). However, the actual total number of warheads planned for deployment was probably about 200. This compares to the Polaris force (following its Chevaline updating) of about 100 warheads.

To implement its policy, therefore, the new Government would need to remove a significant number of warheads from the two Trident submarines currently deployed and reduce the number planned for the third boat. This could be achieved either by removing some of the missiles or by reducing the number of warheads deployed on the MIRVed missiles. (It is not clear if the new Government would stockpile or dismantle the warheads once removed.)

Given these possible warhead reductions there may also now be a question mark over whether the British Government intends to complete its total planned procurement of D5 missiles from the US (the Conservatives had been expected to order a further 14 missiles over the next two years). A decision on whether to order the penultimate batch of seven missiles is imminent. Certainly pressure to reduce defence spending can be expected to build as demands increase for more money to be spent on social priorities such as health and education.

A new force of around 100 warheads, capable of hitting 100 separate targets with an explosive force of around 100 kilotons, would seem to represent a sufficient deterrent for Britain in present circumstances. In terms of target coverage and accuracy it would be a far superior capability to that which it replaced.


Another possible initiative would be to announce the exact number of nuclear warheads Britain deploys - thereby satisfying one of the demands of the Canberra Commission. Alternatively, the Government could simply announce a new lower warhead ceiling, within which its deployment would remain. Previously, Robin Cook, now Foreign secretary, has supported a 1993 German initiative, criticised by the Conservatives, to establish a Nuclear Weapons Register:

"The nuclear-weapons States should declare their holdings in a verifiable Nuclear Weapons Register under the auspices of the United Nations."(7)

A further step would be to allow some form of independent inspection of the submarines, to verify the number of missiles and warheads being carried. However, Labour is unlikely to take any action independently of the START process.

Previously Labour has supported a declaration by the nuclear-weapon States of their existing inventories of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and said that it was prepared to open to inspection Britain's nuclear production facilities. If pursued in government, such policies would be bound to prove popular with non-nuclear-weapon States.

Ratification of the CTBT

When in opposition, the Labour Party's support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was always far more enthusiastic than that of the Conservative Government, which described the crucial 1992 US testing moratorium as "unfortunate and misguided"(8). Labour consistently argued that the non-proliferation benefits of a ban on testing outweighed any possible concerns about loss of skills specific to the development and production of warheads, especially given the fact that the testing of Britain's Trident warhead had already been completed and that no other nuclear warheads were required for any other system.

Although a CTBT will effectively prevent the development of an entirely new British warhead in the future, replications of the existing design will still enable its replacement, if required, when it comes to the end of its natural life.

The new Government's continuing enthusiasm for the CTBT was demonstrated with the early introduction (10 July) of the legislation necessary for speedy British ratification, which can now be expected in the first half of 1998.

Multilateral No-First-Use Agreement

Unlike its predecessor, the Labour Government will work for:

"...a negotiated, multilateral no-first-use [NFU] agreement among the nuclear-weapon States..."(9)

The historic attraction of such an agreement to Labour is that, in theory at least, it would forbid the use of nuclear weapons altogether (whilst still tacitly accepting that if they were ever used retaliation might still be appropriate). However, despite the enthusiastic endorsement of many non-nuclear-weapon States, only China of the nuclear possessors now supports such a policy. Unlike China, however, the new British Government will not adopt a NFU policy unilaterally - the wording of its pledge is carefully crafted.

Nor is Labour likely to do or say anything to contradict NATO strategy, which of course still retains the option of using nuclear weapons first. In any event, Russia's recent antipathy towards NFU looks set to make any multilateral agreement unlikely and Labour may not expend any great diplomatic energy pushing this policy. It would be better served, perhaps, by concentrating on pursuing another of its pledges, i.e. to enhance existing negative security assurances "in the form of an internationally binding agreement." (10)


It remains to be seen just how much political impetus Britain under a Labour Government will provide towards nuclear disarmament. The appointment of Robin Cook, a long-standing supporter of nuclear disarmament, as the new Foreign Secretary offers hope that Britain's arms control policy might now march forward after years of foot-dragging.


1. 'A Fresh Start for Britain: Labour's Strategy for Britain in the Modern World,' p.14, 1996.
2. NOP Consumer Market Research poll. Sample size 1,004; fieldwork conducted 19-21 May 1995. Cited in 'Does Britain need nuclear weapons?', C.R.Hill et.al., a report from the British Pugwash Group, 1995.
3. Reported in the Daily Mail, 25 November 1996.
4. Hansard (House of Commons Official Report), 20 May 1997, col.24.
5. 'A Fresh Start for Britain,' op.cit., p.14.
6. Ibid.
7. The New Statesman, 14 April 1995, p.15.
8. Lord Cranbourne, Defence Minister, Hansard (House of Lords), 16 November 1992.
9. 'A Fresh Start for Britain,' op.cit., p.14.
10. Ibid.

Dr. Stephen Pullinger is Executive Director of the International Security Information Service (ISIS) in London.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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