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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 28, July 1998

How Strategic Was The Review?
By Michael Clarke

The Strategic Defence Review was finally published on 8 July, and contained few surprises. It constitutes a sensible rationalisation of the UK's force structure to reduce the problems of overstretch, reorientate the forces more coherently towards expeditionary operations, and address some of the long-standing problems of Service morale. The Review treats the Ministry of Defence more than ever before as a major company and seeks to gain greater efficiencies through de-stocking, out-sourcing and more commercial asset-management. It is certainly a 'review' in the management sense that it has looked hard at all areas of MoD operation, including equipment procurement, and tried to find ways of streamlining the organisation. And it claims to be 'strategic' in the sense that it began from a foreign policy baseline which establishes what the UK wants to achieve with its security policy and relates its force goals explicitly to that. Most observers have given the SDR high marks for its intellectual breadth and consistency and welcomed the fact that it has provided us with a template that can evolve in response to new events and new ideas. The MoD is rather pleased with itself and expects to offer a robust defence of the process during the Parliamentary debate on the issue in the first two days of the new session in October.

Nevertheless, if the SDR claims to be an exercise in strategic thinking, then it is more notable for what it does not spell out than for what it does. It lists some of the major assumptions behind the policy but does not tell us on what basis they were adopted - such as that the Atlantic Alliance remains fundamental to our security, as does the nuclear deterrent; or that the Eurofighter project is not up for negotiation. And it adopts other assumptions which are not made explicit at all, still less the thinking behind them; such as the view that the UK should aim to play a prominent role in the world, or that UK interests will be best served by having the power to intervene - 'we must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us.' Such assumptions are not necessarily wrong, but it is far from clear that they have been thought through rigorously.

The SDR has quite a lot to say about the UK's nuclear posture and some interesting announcements to make, but here - more than in other areas - it remains locked into some long-held assumptions that a more strategically-minded review might have questioned. The SDR announced a ceiling on warhead numbers of 48 per Trident submarine, a cap of 200 in the total number of UK warheads, and published figures for the first time of the total size of its weapons programme nuclear materials stocks. It also announced some measures of reduced readiness for the nuclear deterrent force, whereby Trident submarines would henceforth be on several days notice to fire rather than on immediate alert. All of this is to be welcomed, and goes further than other allied nuclear powers have gone, but it does not address some of the more basic questions regarding the UK's nuclear posture.

The SDR mentions the role of Trident as a sub-strategic, as well as a strategic, nuclear deterrent. This role is mentioned but never elaborated. In July 1997 a senior MoD official told the House of Commons Defence Committee that thinking about the relationship between sub-strategic and strategic deterrence in this connection was still progressing. In July 1998 the same official told the same committee that sub-strategic deterrence should be seen as a way of bolstering the strategic deterrent. It was not evident that thinking had gone very far and all MoD pronouncements, both official and private, studiously avoided offering any specific scenarios for sub-strategic nuclear use.

In fact, a sub-strategic role for Trident is extremely difficult to justify, even within the corpus of deterrent thinking. It undermines the claim that the UK deterrent is down to the bare minimum; it assumes that where it might be employed against a small aggressor State the distinction between strategic and sub-strategic will be appreciated; it also ignores the fact that if a nuclear device were used (say) against British forces operating abroad - which is the nearest the MoD ever comes to offering a scenario for sub-strategic use - then the most effective response on our part would be to display great nuclear restraint and use the moral outrage of the world as legitimacy to employ our overwhelming advantages in economic power and conventional forces. In other words, any nuclear aggression against British forces, who would in any case be part of a broader coalition, would open the way for Western countries to play to all their military and moral strengths rather than engage in a highly dangerous battle using weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Not least, the possession of sub-strategic weapons implies that they are there to deter the use of other weapons of mass destruction - particularly chemical and biological - against our forces abroad. But in doing so, sub-strategic weapons themselves help promote complex games of micro-deterrence in regional crises, the complexities of which make the deterrence of the Cold war appear very simple indeed.

Nowhere in the SDR is there any explicit consideration of whether it is in the long-term security interests of the UK to continue to be a nuclear power; still less whether its own posture - responsible and increasingly transparent as it is - makes the use of WMD elsewhere in the world less, or more, likely. The nuclear deterrent is regarded by this government as an insurance policy, the premiums on which have already been substantially paid; the sub-strategic option is regarded merely as a useful military adjunct to it which extends the range of options for military planners and therefore contributes to the UK's deterrent in general. The SDR does not question whether the long-term political costs of remaining a nuclear power may make this insurance policy, in reality, very costly indeed. And it certainly does not acknowledge the argument that a sub-strategic option may actually work against the interests of a general, minimum deterrent, as well as encouraging the proliferation of other forms of WMD in the world. These sorts of questions must await a more fundamental look at the role the UK is best placed - and most wants - to play in the world, and a more holistic approach to thinking about the nuclear future of mankind.

Maintaining nuclear deterrence as an 'insurance policy' - however well it is operated - is too narrow a conception of the WMD problem in an era that is just on the point of sliding into extensive WMD development in many parts of the world.

Michael Clarke is Director of the Centre for Defence Studies (CDS), King's College, London.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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