Issue No. 28, July 1998
The SDR And Britain's Nuclear Disarmament Obligations
The Blair Government's long-awaited Strategic Defence Review - the
biggest since 1957 - appeared on 8 July 1998. (1) As Chair of World
Court Project in the UK, I found this date perversely fitting: the
second anniversary of the delivery by the International Court of
Justice of its historic Advisory Opinion on the legal status of the
threat or use of nuclear weapons. (2)
By Commander Robert Green,
Royal Navy (Retired)
My assessment of the Review has therefore been made with that in
mind - plus the following words from an interview given by George
Robertson after becoming Secretary of State for Defence, in which
he spoke of his hopes for reducing the number of nuclear weapons in
the world: "We are at a historic moment when, if we take the right
decisions, future generations will look back and thank us for
making the world better for them. If we do not take the right
decisions or do not take any decisions, we will stand condemned...
after all these years I could be able to fulfil that objective and
make the world a safer place for my grandson's generation." (3) In
his introduction to the Review, he echoes this by stating: "We want
to give a lead, we want to be a force for good." (4)
Defence Diplomacy and Trident
"Defence Diplomacy" is the name given to implementing the
foreign policy aspects of the Review. It has been made a new core
defence mission, defined as follows: "To provide forces to meet the
varied activities undertaken by the Ministry of Defence to dispel
hostility, build and maintain trust and assist in the development
of the democratically accountable armed forces, thereby making a
significant contribution to conflict prevention and
Deterrence and arms control are part of this mission: "The
Government wishes to see a safer world in which there is no place
for nuclear weapons... Nevertheless, while large nuclear arsenals
and risks of proliferation remain, our minimum deterrent remains a
necessary element of our security." (5) This is not surprising, in
view of the fact that Robertson had ringfenced Trident -
since March this year the only British nuclear weapon system - from
challenge in the Review, following Labour's election manifesto
pledge to retain it. That said, the Review asserts that "we have
undertaken a fundamental re-examination of all aspects of Britain's
Trident a "Force for Good"?
It is difficult to reconcile Robertson's aim of wanting Britain
to give international leadership as a "force for good" with
retaining Trident. In 1996, the World Court decided that "a
threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the
rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in
particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law." (7) The
Court drew attention to the uniquely appalling characteristics of
nuclear weapons, described by the Court President, Judge Mohammed
Bedjaoui, as the "ultimate evil".
Following the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, President
Clinton - apparently without irony - said: "I cannot believe that
we are about to start the 21st century by having the Indian
sub-continent repeat the worst mistakes of the 20th century, when
we know it is not necessary to peace, to security, to prosperity,
to national greatness, or to personal fulfilment." (8) What example
is Britain showing to India and Pakistan - and the next potential
proliferator - when the Review insists that "(w)e need to ensure
that (Trident) can remain an effective deterrent for up to
30 years" (9), describing it as "a capability of such vital
importance to our national security" (10)? One of the more
revealing aspects of the reaction by the US and UK to the South
Asian tests has been the attempt to persuade India and Pakistan to
"do as we say, not as we do". This fundamental contradiction is
simply not addressed.
Fewer Trident Warheads; More Destructive
The Review claims that in future each submarine "will have an
explosive power one third less than the 32 Chevaline warheads which
were eventually deployed on [sic] each Polaris submarine." (11) The
Trident warhead's yield, however, is 100-120 kilotons (12),
eight times the yield of the Hiroshima bomb. What is also not
mentioned is that the lower-yield, highly accurately delivered
Trident warheads can be more destructive than higher-yield,
inaccurate ones. Moreover, unlike Chevaline each Trident
warhead is independently targetable. This means that a
Trident submarine with 48 warheads can still strike one
third more targets more destructively than a Polaris submarine
could with Chevaline. So much for Britain's gesture to nuclear
The Review states: "The credibility of deterrence also depends
on retaining an option for a limited strike that would not
automatically lead to a full scale nuclear exchange. Unlike Polaris
and Chevaline, Trident must also be capable of performing
this 'sub-strategic' role." (13)
That is almost all it has to say on a role which involves the
most likely scenarios for the potential use of Britain's nuclear
arsenal. This is because even only three 100 kiloton warheads on a
single missile are not a credible threat to a "rogue" regime or
terrorists. The US (14), UK and France (15) therefore have plans to
threaten to use "low-yield" warheads against non-nuclear "rogue"
regimes in reprisal for attacks using chemical or biological
weapons against their vital interests anywhere in the world. This
clearly threatens first use where the survival of the nuclear
weapon-using State is not at stake, which the World Court confirmed
as illegal. (16)
Another related concern here is the total silence on the nature
of the warhead to be used in this role. It is rumoured that several
missiles in the deployed submarine are carrying only one warhead,
possibly capable of a choice of yield of 1 kiloton (only the
trigger detonates), 10 kilotons (trigger plus fission boost), or
100-120 kilotons (full fission-fusion burst). The US recently
deployed the B61-11 earth-penetrating nuclear warhead with a
variable yield between 0.3-340 kilotons for this purpose, for
delivery by the B-2 "stealth" bomber. (17)
Though welcome as a response to concerns about accidental
launch, the "several days' notice to fire"  is unverifiable,
and - like detargeting - quickly reversible. In addition, the
intention to give the deployed submarine secondary tasks "such as
exercises with other vessels, equipment trials and hydrographic
work" (19) implies a disturbing new ambivalence about the role of
Trident. Bearing in mind that it will be carrying 48
warheads, this adds a much more casual approach to the already
growing risk, since detargeting, of morale problems associated with
a task increasingly seen by world opinion as breaching the
Nuremberg Principles - observance of which is a crucial difference
between military professionals and hired killers or terrorists.
The only sure way to de-alert would be to stand down continuous
patrols, remove the missiles, separate the warheads from them and
place them in verifiable storage. (21) The Review reports that this
was considered, but ran up against the dictates of deterrence
doctrine. More spuriously, it argues that reloading and deploying a
submarine would "create new risks of crisis escalation" and
"undermine the stabilising role that Britain's nuclear deterrent
forces would play in a developing crisis". (22) This begs the
question of the degree of stability achieved by continuous
"deterrent" patrols, with the message they send to potential
proliferators; and ignores the successful adoption of such
confidence-building measures under the Conventional Forces in
I fear that the Strategic Defence Review exhibits all the
symptoms of the "naked nuclear emperor". If the Non-Proliferation
Treaty is to be saved at its review in April 2000, I therefore
recommend to George Robertson that he should seriously consider
re-equipping Trident with a range of usable conventional
warheads and missiles, which would offer effective, cheaper, and
lawful deterrence. Currently under development by the US (23), this
would solve the problem of a non-nuclear role for the submarines -
and give him the opportunity to "make the world a safer place for
my grandson's generation."
Notes and References
1. "The Strategic Defence Review", Cm 3999 [London: The
Stationery Office, July 1998, £8.65].
2. "Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons" (Advisory
Opinion of July 8), UN Document A/51/218 (1996), reprinted in 35
I.L.M. 809 & 1343 (1996).
3. The Scotsman, 5 May 1997.
4. The Strategic Defence Review, paragraph 19.
5. Ibid paragraph 60.
6. Ibid Supporting Essay Five, "Deterrence, Arms Control and
Proliferation", paragraph 6.
7. World Court Advisory Opinion, Dispositif sub-paragraph
8. Excerpt - Clinton remarks on Pakistan's nuclear tests,
United States Information Service, 28 May 1998.
9. The Strategic Defence Review, paragraph 62.
10. Ibid paragraph 75.
11. The Strategic Defence Review, Supporting Essay Five, paragraph
12. "Jane's Fighting Ships" [Jane's Information Group Ltd,
1997-98], p.755. At website: http://www.janes.com/janes.html.
13. The Strategic Defence Review, paragraph 63.
14. Presidential Decision Directive 60, issued November 1997.
15. "Nations draw closer on use of nuclear weapons" [Financial
Times, 31 October 1995].
16. The one caveat was that "in view of the current state of
international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the
Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of
nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme
circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State
would be at stake" [ICJ Advisory Opinion, 8 July 1996], Dispositif
subparagraph 105(2)E. In paragraph 97, it identified "a State" as
the one contemplating using nuclear weapons, thereby ruling out
17. "The Birth of a New Bomb", Greg Mello [Washington Post,
1 June 1997].
18. The Strategic Defence Review, paragraph 68.
20. On 1 October 1997 - the 51st anniversary of the Nuremberg
judgment - I sent an Open Letter entitled "Trident and
Nuremberg" to the Prime Minister, First Sea Lord and all others
involved in planning and executing deployment of Trident. In
it I warned them that the World Court Advisory Opinion had
confirmed that the Nuremberg Charter applies to nuclear weapons, as
part of international humanitarian law. The Prime Minister replied
that "the Government is confident that the United Kingdom's nuclear
deterrent is consistent with international law. It follows that
those who are engaged in the operation and support of
Trident, at whatever level within the Government, are acting
legally under the Nuremberg Principles." [letter from Philip
Barton, Prime Minister's Private Secretary, 24 December 1997].
21. Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear
Weapons [August 1996], pp.53-54.
22. The Strategic Defence Review, Supporting Essay Five, paragraph
13. 23. "The US Navy has sought Congressional and Department of
Defense support for a plan to convert four Trident
submarines into non-nuclear strike submarines", David C. Isby [Navy
News, Vol. 2, No. 13, Jane's Defence Upgrades, 3 July 1998],
Robert Green served in the Royal Navy from 1962-82. As a
Fleet Air Arm Observer, he flew in Buccaneer carrier-borne nuclear
strike aircraft and then in anti-submarine helicopters equipped
with WE-177 nuclear depth-bombs. On promotion to Commander, he
spent 1978-80 in the MoD as a Personal Staff Officer to the
Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Policy), who was closely involved
in recommending the replacement for Polaris. He became Chair of the
World Court Project UK in 1991, and is working full-time to promote
non-nuclear security policies.
© 1998 The Acronym Institute.
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