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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 28, July 1998

The SDR And Britain's Nuclear Disarmament Obligations
By Commander Robert Green,
Royal Navy (Retired)

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)

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 resolution."

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 nuclear posture."(6)

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 disarmament!

Sub-Strategic Role

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)

Relaxed Alert

Though welcome as a response to concerns about accidental launch, the "several days' notice to fire" [18] 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. (20)

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 Europe Treaty.


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 105(2)E.
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 10.
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 collective defence.
17. "The Birth of a New Bomb", Greg Mello [Washington Post, 1 June 1997].
18. The Strategic Defence Review, paragraph 68.
19. Ibid.
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], p.3.

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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