Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
Back to the Acronym home page
British Policy
South Asia
About Acronym

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 28, July 1998

Still Punching Above Our Weight
By Rebecca Johnson Questioning the Assumptions

The UK Strategic Defence Review rested on certain policy assumptions which were never really examined, particularly: the primacy and stability of NATO as the "cornerstone" of Britain's defence planning; Britain as a permanent security council member and thus major player in the United Nations; the continuation of the 'Atlantic Alliance', with the US-UK relationship at its heart; and the stability of the non-proliferation regime based on continued possession of nuclear weapons by five 'legal' nuclear powers. The SDR was intended to consider Britain's defence needs to 2015, but Robin Cook and George Robertson knew what their foreign policy baseline would be from the beginning. How many of these policy assumptions will actually hold true for that long?

Britain will not necessarily remain a permanent member of the Security Council. Reform of the United Nations is far from complete, and the structure and composition of the Security Council are due for an overhaul, although any change will have to be very carefully handled. The permanent members were not selected on the basis of nuclear capability (only the US had nuclear weapons at the time), but the appearance of a link has been unfortunate and seems to have played a role in India's disastrous decision to conduct nuclear tests in May.

Countries like Japan, Brazil, South Africa and India have good reason to be knocking on the door of the Security Council. Since the EU is increasingly represented by joint statements in diplomatic fora, it would make more sense to have one permanent seat allocated to the European Union, to be rotated with the EU Presidency, rather than separate seats for Britain, France and (as proposed) Germany. Additional European countries could, of course, be elected to other seats of the Security Council, as normal.

The Atlantic Alliance is likely to play an important role, but the 'special relationship' between the United States and Britain has been less dependable over the past 30 years and relies in part on the degree of personal warmth between the respective leaders. At times Britain has appeared to be little more than America's poodle, welcome no doubt, but able to be taken for granted, where more challenging or economically strong allies have carried more actual influence.

The nuclear tests by India and Pakistan have blown the lid off cosy assumptions of non-proliferation sustainability with only five NWS. India's attempts to gain what it perceives to be 'legitimacy' as a nuclear power will have consequences for the NPT-nuclear weapon States as well as for unstable regions such as the Middle East and North Asia. Britain and the other NPT-nuclear weapon States may be forced sooner rather than later to make some hard choices about how "necessary [an] element of our security" (1) nuclear weapons are, if the choice is between proliferation and nuclear disarmament.

The underlying doctrine of power projection was dressed as international responsibility and 'defence diplomacy'. Within the context the SDR outlined, many of the proposals for rationalising and reconfiguring the armed forces were sensible. There is nothing wrong with taking an internationalist view of Britain's responsibilities and restructuring the forces to take part in collective and humanitarian missions. These are laudable aims. Yet there seems to be a disconnect between the assessment of 'tomorrow's threats' and the over-reliance on traditional military responses and 'punching above our weight'. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review was an opportunity to promote a larger understanding of collective international security and on that test must be found lacking.

How much of Britain's view of itself as a major international player is based on its 'P-5' identity and being America's "best buddy" in the Atlantic Alliance? Without those 'foreign policy-led' assumptions, would we spend such a big proportion of our defence budget on 'force projection', nuclear or otherwise?

Nuclear Policy

Nuclear policy occupied a rather small part in the SDR, but still plays an important role in Britain's international identity. Labour confirmed its pre-election pledge to cut Trident warheads to Polaris numbers, but chose to use the early Polaris figures of 48 per submarine rather than the later Polaris-Chevaline deployment of 32 per boat. The overall stockpile was announced to be below 200 warheads. (2) If the SDR had based its figures on what was 'currently deployed on Polaris', as Robin Cook had called for in 1995, the warhead complement could have been brought down to around 128. (3) As expected, however, the SDR also announced cancellation of the remaining seven Trident D-5 missiles on order from the United States, leaving Britain with 58 rather than the planned 65 missile bodies.

Fewer nuclear weapons are of course better than more, but at around 192 warheads of around 100 kt, Britain's nuclear forces still pack a potential explosive power of more than 19 megatons. The SDR especially underlined that the new policy represents a reduction of more than 70 percent in the potential explosive power of Britain's nuclear forces since the end of the Cold War. Explosive power, however, does not necessarily equate with potential damage: single large bombs or lots of nuclear artillery shells used on a battlefield would kill fewer people and wreak less havoc than Trident-type medium-sized (100 kt) multiple warheads, independently targeted as part of a strategic strike force.

Significantly, Labour announced that its nuclear forces were on a "reduced day-to-day alert state", not targeted, and normally at "several days 'notice to fire'". This appears to be an unverifiable operational decision, rather than technical de-alerting. It provides a welcome protection against accidental, hair trigger or unauthorised firing, but falls a long way short of the kind of confidence-building measures and operational marginalisation of nuclear weapons that had been called for by many citizens' groups and analysts. Indeed, Despite the MoD's actual failure to provide continuous 24-hour patrols during the past decade, Labour confirmed the aim of having at least one Trident submarine at sea at all times. The argument for mothballing the fourth submarine was rejected. All four will be brought into service, with the intention of having two in port while one is on patrol.

The implication is that deterrence requires continuous readiness, if not hair trigger alert. Relying on arguments about 'surprise attack' and potential misunderstandings, the SDR rejected proposals for 'de-weaponising' Trident by separating and storing the warheads on land. On the contrary, it pledges to "ensure that we can restore a higher state of alert should this become necessary at any time." Stating that 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", the SDR proposes a 'sub-strategic' role for Trident, but fails to say what that might look like.

Although the SDR states that "the Government wishes to see a safer world in which there is no place for nuclear weapons", it clearly does not envisage Britain giving them up any time soon: "while large nuclear arsenals and risks of proliferation remain, our minimum deterrent remains a necessary element of our security". Elsewhere, the SDR refers to nuclear deterrence as "longer term insurance" for NATO. (4)

The SDR underlines British support for nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear arms control and expresses the hope that the START process will be revived and that Russian shorter range weapons will also be reduced. As far as the UK is concerned, however, the policy is clear: "Our own arsenal, following the further reductions described..., is the minimum necessary to provide for our security for the foreseeable future and very much smaller than those of the major nuclear powers. Considerable further reductions in the latter would be needed before further British reductions could become feasible."

Arguing that "greater transparency about nuclear programmes also adds to international trust and security", the SDR takes the significant step of announcing Britain's holdings of fissile materials for military purposes: 7.6 tonnes of plutonium; 21.9 tonnes of highly enriched uranium and 15,000 tonnes of other forms of uranium. The MoD also pledged to put 0.3 tonnes of 'surplus' weapon grade plutonium under international safeguards, for the first time accepting that Britain has such surplus stocks. Moreover, the UK would cease to exercise its 'right' under the NPT to withdraw fissile material from safeguarded stocks for nuclear weapons. All planned reprocessing would henceforth be carried out under safeguards and an initial report would be published by the year 2000 on past production for military purposes. The SDR also provides more open figures on the nuclear stockpile and on the aggregate costs associated with Trident and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE).

In offering such information, Labour is responding to appeals for greater transparency, both for confidence-building and to help prepare the ground for banning the production of fissile materials (in a multilateral cut-off treaty or fissban). Previous governments have always hidden behind the Official Secrets Act and claims about 'national security'. This transparency initiative, therefore, should be welcomed as a positive step forward and a genuine attempt to facilitate the start of negotiations on a cut-off treaty, even though it does not yet go far enough.


The Strategic Defence Review was the product of wider consultations than ever before. In many ways it was braver and went further than many had expected, with the promise of better management and coordination. The Labour Government should be congratulated for emphasising defence diplomacy, humanitarian response abilities and greater transparency. But the reluctance truly to examine the foreign policy assumptions and nuclear reliance represent a missed opportunity.

NATO expansion and British and NATO nuclear policies carry the risk of fuelling or precipitating the dangers that they are presented as defences against, namely a renewed Russian threat and nuclear proliferation. By protecting such commitments in advance, each of which carries very high financial costs and political implications, the SDR leaves the impression that it lacked confidence that NATO and Trident would survive the scrutiny of a truly strategic look at future security and defence requirements.

Instead of reinforcing its public message to India, Pakistan or other potential proliferators that they do not need nuclear weapons for their security, Britain has, by its statements on nuclear policy, appeared to proclaim the opposite. The cuts to Trident are very welcome, but must be put into perspective. If a man weighing 300 kilos reduces down to 150 kg, it is perhaps necessary to congratulate him on losing half his weight, but that should not obscure the reality that he will still be terribly and life-threateningly obese. As expressed in the SDR, Britain's nuclear policies continue to present an advertising billboard for nuclear proliferation. Not unsurprisingly, in view of its past history, Labour has avoided the real nuclear questions about utility and legitimacy. With its transparency initiative on fissile materials, the MoD has taken a laudable step to facilitate negotiations on banning the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons. At the same time, however, the SDR also reiterated justifications for Britain to stay out of nuclear disarmament negotiations for a long time. If the Government believes that Britain still needs nuclear weapons for security, what arguments can it make to convince India, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea, Iran and others that they do not?

Notes and References

1. The Strategic Defence Review, CM3999, The Stationery Office, London, July 1998. Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from the section on 'Deterrence and Disarmament', pp 17-20.

2. Since removal of the last WE-177 free-fall bombs earlier this year, Britain no longer possesses tactical nuclear weapons.

3. Robin Cook, "Bombs Away", New Statesman & Society, 14 April 1995, p 15.

4. The Strategic Defence Review, p 16.

Rebecca Johnson is Executive Director of The Acronym Institute.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

Return to top of page

Return to List of Contents

Return to Acronym Main Page