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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 88, Cover design by Calvert's Press, Photo by Rebecca JohnsonDisarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 88, Summer 2008

What Price Nuclear Blackmail?

General Sir Hugh Beach

Britain has possessed nuclear weapons for just over 50 years and is laying plans to keep them going for the next half-century. In the December 2006 White Paper that contained its formal presentation of the case for renewing Trident the government explained:

"It is not possible accurately to predict the global security environment over the next 20 to 50 years. On our current analysis, we cannot rule out the risk either that a major direct nuclear threat to the UK's vital interests will re-emerge or that new states will emerge that possess a more limited nuclear capability, but one that could pose a grave threat to our vital interests. Equally there is a risk that some countries might in future seek to sponsor nuclear terrorism from their soil. We must not allow such states to threaten our national security, or to deter us and the international community from taking the action required to maintain regional and global security. We can only deter such threats in future through the continued possession of nuclear weapons. Conventional capabilities cannot have the same deterrent effect. We therefore see an enduring role for the UK's nuclear forces as an essential part of our capability for deterring blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests by nuclear-armed opponents."[1]

Simply stated, the government's core argument for replacing Trident is that if Britain were to divest itself of this weapon and became a non-nuclear weapon state, then a state that did possess nuclear weapons and with hostile intent might "pose a grave threat to our vital interests", or at least prevent us from intervening, as a "force for good", as we might otherwise wish. If this happened we should have no option but to submit. Conventional capabilities would not suffice. Only possession of our own nuclear weapon can give us the freedom to confront 'blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests by nuclear-armed opponents.' Put in these stark terms the argument carries a ring of conviction and is consequently seldom justified by government ministers and officials. The aim of this paper is to show that it is far from being the whole story.[2]

Resisting nuclear blackmail

The first and obvious point is that of the 188 states party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) all but five have committed themselves to maintaining non-nuclear weapon status. If this makes them all potential victims of nuclear blackmail, they do not seem to be unduly worried. Many of them have the economic, industrial and scientific capacity to become nuclear weapon states if they wished, but have chosen not to. A huge majority of states has voluntarily accepted non-nuclear weapon status and seems to suffer no disadvantage from this fact. Nor do they appear to suffer from the fear of "blackmail and acts of aggression against [their] vital interests" by one of the eight countries that have these weapons, or by any others who might acquire them. Why should Britain be any different?

A similar point can be made from the other side. It is not clear that any of the possessor states has derived benefit from its weapons by way of coercing a non-nuclear weapon state. America was defeated by the North Vietnamese in the 1975 and backed down in the face of casualties on many other fronts, most notably the Tehran hostage crisis (1980), Beirut (1983), and Mogadishu (1993). The Soviet Union was defeated by the Afghans. In none of these cases were their nuclear weapons any help to the possessors.

British nuclear weapons

Britain cannot claim any direct security benefit from the possession of nuclear weapons. Specifically, it cannot be shown that by virtue of the UK nuclear arsenal Britain has been able to take any action vis-à-vis another country that it could not otherwise have undertaken, nor prevented action by any other country that it could not otherwise have prevented. British nuclear weapons did not deter Argentina from attempting to annex the Falkland Islands in 1982, nor did they help Britain to recover them, despite the belief that a Polaris submarine was patrolling the South Atlantic.[3] The most that can be claimed is that Britain, as a nuclear weapon state, has been influential in promoting arms control measures such as the NPT and the various nuclear test ban treaties. It is said that Britain may have been able to dissuade America from contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, if not in Viet Nam then possibly in the Gulf War of 1991. It is a strange argument for possessing nuclear weapons that their main use is to help persuade one's ally not to use theirs.

Since possession of nuclear weapons for the past fifty years has not done Britain any demonstrable good, what does this tell us about the next fifty years? In answering this we need first to consider Britain's position vis-à-vis the United States. The crucial question is to what extent Britain can rely on the support of America in facing down any future nuclear threat. The possibility of having to confront a recidivist Russia is hinted at by the reference to re-emergence of "a major direct nuclear threat to the UK's vital interests" and is plainly something to be borne in mind.[4] But if the American nuclear guarantee is regarded as fully watertight, why is there any need for an independent British system?

The American nuclear guarantee?

So far as the security of the British homeland is concerned this appears to fall squarely within the North Atlantic Treaty. Article 5 says: "The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe... shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them... will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with other parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the integrity of the North Atlantic area." The implication is that the United States - and any others - will provide cover and support to any NATO allies against nuclear or other kinds of military blackmail in any European context. It has certainly been understood in this way by all the non-nuclear European members, including those who have recently joined from Central and Eastern Europe.

But Britain also operates as an ally of the United States outside Europe and not necessarily in a NATO context. Here also there is an explicit policy of relying upon the greater military capabilities of the United States. The British Defence White Papers "Delivering Security in a Changing World" (2003/4) explain: "The most demanding expeditionary operations, involving intervention against state adversaries, can only plausibly be conducted if US forces are engaged, either leading a coalition or in NATO."[5] "...The full spectrum of capabilities is not required (by Britain) for large scale operations, as the most demanding operations could only conceivably be undertaken alongside the US, either as a NATO operation or a US led coalition, where we have choices as to what to contribute".[6] Reference to "the most demanding operations" implies that, where a nuclear threat is concerned, America would be in the lead and would provide the necessary cover. And because the operational nuclear force provided by US forces is several times larger than the UK's nuclear forces, what possible significant contribution could Britain make other than as a rather expensive signal? This is a point generally true of most of the more sophisticated military packages deployed, but most of all with the Trident system, already heavily dependent upon the Americans.

The D5 missiles used on British Trident are American. The 58 missiles 'bought' by the UK are not British exclusive property but form part of a "shared pool of US/UK missiles"[7] based on the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic at Kings Bay, Georgia.[8] The weapons are collected from there by British submarines and returned there for refurbishment as necessary. The hardware and much of the software associated with the missiles' targeting and firing are also of American provenance.

This close cooperation with the United States on technical matters is covered by the Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958, regularly renewed. In an amendment the following year the US agreed to supply Britain with non-nuclear parts of atomic weapons systems, together with "special nuclear material"[9] required for research, development or manufacture of atomic weapons.[10] This arrangement was recently extended by agreement between the President and the Prime Minister for a further ten years till December 2014.[11] These agreements have underpinned the close and continuing link between the two countries in constructing, operating and maintaining the British strategic nuclear submarine force over the past forty years. As the AWE Annual Report for 2004 explained, co-operation with the United States on nuclear weapon matters, under the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement, now "covers every aspect of weapon design, development and maintenance". So no-one doubts the description of the British Trident Warhead, as an American W76 warhead 'anglicised' at Aldermaston. It is generally assumed that all the items of the Re-entry Vehicle outside the Nuclear Explosives Package are of American supply.[12]

Given this very close tie-up between Britain and the United States, both strategically and technically, what geopolitical niche can be discerned in which Britain could be exposed to nuclear blackmail without being able to count on American cover? This, of course, is an ancient question and no such scenario has ever been described, nor have Britain's 'vital interests' ever been defined.[13] Yet such a contingency has been held in the past to be of enough weight to justify the costs of a separate British system. One could argue that the same should apply to the next half century. To this we now turn.

The British government concedes: "We judge that no state currently has both the intent and the capability to pose a direct nuclear threat to the United Kingdom or its vital interests".[14] It then continues, "we cannot rule out the risk that such a (direct nuclear) threat will re-emerge over future decades".[15] This is the key argument made by the British Government in defence of Trident replacement as summarized in the first paragraph of this paper.

In considering a period extending to the middle of the 21st century it is impossible to predict the political context so far ahead. For example the focus of American interest may have shifted decisively towards the Pacific Rim; the Russians and Chinese may have become hegemonic powers in their own right and the number of nuclear weapons states may have doubled or halved. One can distinguish two possible situations. The first is where the United States, while possibly sympathetic to Britain's position, is not prepared to commit to our nuclear protection - bearing in mind that this could place American forces or homeland at risk of retaliation - the adversary being, by definition, a nuclear power.[16] The second is where the United States is actively opposed to the position taken by Britain. We consider this latter scenario first.

Under the Mutual Defence Agreement co-operation by either party is contingent on their determining that such action "will promote and will not constitute an unreasonable risk to its defence and security". The message is clear that such co-operation could be withdrawn at any time if the UK embarked on a course of action that the US regarded as inimical to its interests. The agreement referred to the fact that the two countries were participating in an international arrangement for their mutual defence and security (i.e. NATO) and at Nassau the British Prime Minister accordingly agreed that the strategic missiles to be provided would be used for the nuclear defence of the Alliance. He did however insist on an exception "where Her Majesty's government may decide that supreme national interests are at stake."[17] The question arises whether British Trident could be used without US consent or targeted independently of US assistance. When this question was put in the House of Lords in 1995 the government representative replied, "Trident is an independent nuclear deterrent. That means exactly that, I can go no further".[18] The Delphic nature of this answer was obviously deliberate.

The issue needs to be discussed at two levels. If the United States were to determine that co-operation on British Trident was no longer promoting American defence and security, or was posing an unreasonable risk to it, then all technical assistance could be withdrawn. Denied help in maintaining, testing and upgrading the missiles, the fire control system and key components of the warhead, and with no re-supply of materials or components that degrade over time, the whole system would start to become unworkable and probably unsafe within a matter of a year or so. Therefore, if Britain were to use or threaten to use Trident in circumstances of which the United States disapproved this could sign the death warrant for British Trident.

For as long as the system remained functional there is a second question of actually firing a missile in circumstances where the Americans were opposed. The submarine could no doubt be sailed to an area where the sea-bed had been accurately surveyed by the British. The order to fire could be conveyed and authenticated without using an American satellite. The missile would then presumably work, although the accuracy might be impaired if gravitational and weather information, normally supplied by the Americans, was not available. If the British Prime Minister, deciding that "supreme national interests were at stake", were to order Trident to be used then it would be able to be aimed and fired. Short of attacking the submarine[19] or the Prime Minister, there is nothing the Americans could do to stop it.

But how likely is it that a Prime Minister would act in defiance of the United States? The last time that Britain took military action in the teeth of opposition from America was at Suez in November 1956. America checkmated this action within days by means of financial, economic and political pressure.[20] Does anyone seriously imagine the United States would not act similarly if Britain were contemplating the use of Trident against US wishes?

Let us now consider the kind of scenarios where America, while not actively opposing British action, is unwilling to support it. Until 1942 Britain had to face the existential threat from Hitler on its own. President Roosevelt, our best friend and ally, uttered kind words and gave financial support, but until forced in by the Japanese he kept the United States firmly out of the struggle, even when it looked as if we might go under. Perhaps it is unlikely that this would ever happen again but it might. Lacking any direct historical precedent, let us try a thought experiment. Say that by 1980 Argentina had acquired a rudimentary nuclear weapon capability, while Britain, acceding to the pressures of the anti-nuclear lobby and relying on the American nuclear umbrella, had allowed the Polaris system to waste out. Once Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands, if America had then declined to back the British militarily, could Britain have set about ejecting the Argentine military by force? One cannot be sure, but it may be helpful to consider some past interactions between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states.

Who knuckles under to nuclear blackmail ?

In June 1948 the Soviet Union blockaded the surface routes into West Berlin, no doubt expecting to achieve control of the whole city, despite the fact that it was defended by substantial American, French and British garrisons and that the United States then possessed nuclear weapons while the Soviet Union did not. The American Chiefs of Staff proposed to send an armoured column from West Germany to force open the autobahn, but this plan was vetoed by President Truman as too risky. Instead the allies decided to re-supply West Berlin by means of a massive airlift. The Russians harassed the transport aircraft, buzzing them, shining searchlights and firing flak nearby but stopped short of shooting them down. The airlift was successful, the blockade failed and was lifted in May 1949, and the Soviets were humiliated. One reason why the Soviet Union did not attack the allied transport fleet may have been that they feared a nuclear response from the Americans. A more likely explanation is that, like the Americans, they were not prepared to take their military action to lengths that might lead to a third World War.

In July 1950, at the very beginning of the Korean War, President Truman ordered 10 nuclear configured B-29s to the Pacific. He warned China that the United States would take "whatever steps are necessary" to stop Chinese intervention and said that the use of nuclear weapons "had been under active consideration". The Chinese at that time were several years short of acquiring their own nuclear weapons. By late November the Americans had made substantial incursions into North Korea. The Chinese then struck along the Chongchon River, completely overran several South Korean divisions and attacked the flank of the remaining UN forces. The ensuing defeat of the US Eighth Army resulted in the longest retreat of any American military unit in history. This was a major defeat for the Americans, and plainly their attempt at nuclear blackmail had not dissuaded the Chinese from inflicting it.

Saddam Hussein was not deterred from invading Kuwait in 1990 by fear of American nuclear weapons, although he had none himself. It has often been suggested that the reason Saddam did not use his chemical weapons to stave off subsequent defeat was that he had been warned repeatedly by the Americans, Israeli and British of dire consequences if he did so. One might question whether the United States would actually have used nuclear weapons in response to a chemical attack, but Saddam Hussein could not have been confident that they would not. As Bruce Blair noted at the time, "There's enough ambiguity in our deployments of nuclear weapons at sea and our ability to deliver nuclear weapons by air and quickly move them into the region to plant the seeds of doubt in Hussein's mind."[21] The effectiveness of the threat of chemical or nuclear retaliation was asserted by Lt. General Calvin Waller, deputy commander of Desert Storm, who said that "we tried to give him [Saddam Hussein] every signal that if he used chemicals against us that we would retaliate in kind and may even do more, so I think he was hesitant to use them there."[22]

Coalition forces found no evidence that chemical weapons had been moved into the Kuwaiti theatre. This may have been because the desert was seen as not being conducive to the effective use of chemical weapons. But such a consideration would not apply to the use of chemical armed missiles. Iraq fired conventionally armed missiles at Israel in an effort to draw Israel into the war. He is believed to have had chemical warheads that could have been delivered by these missiles, which suggests that for whatever reason Saddam Hussein may have been deterred from using them. Whether the nuclear component of this was decisive must remain a matter of speculation.

A fourth example is provided by Chinese threats against Taiwan. Concern over a formal declaration of Taiwan's independence has been a major impetus for the military buildup between Taiwan and mainland China. China has been increasing the deployment of missiles aimed at Taiwan by 100 a year or more, and may now have an arsenal of more than 700 ballistic missiles capable of being fitted with nuclear warheads. Presumably their deployment is a gambit on the part of China, increasing political pressure on Taiwan to abandon any unilateral move toward formal independence, at least for the time being. But the Chinese government never declares such deployment publicly, nor does it provide reasons or explanations.

The nearest that matters came to a show-down was in 1996 when China began conducting military exercises near Taiwan and launched several ballistic missiles over the island. This was done in response to the possible re-election of then President Lee Teng-hui. The United States, under President Clinton, sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, sailing them into the Taiwan Straits. China was unable to track the ships' movements and being unwilling to escalate the conflict, quickly backed down. The event had little impact on the outcome of the election, since none of Lee's rivals was strong enough to defeat him, but it is widely believed that China's aggressive acts, far from intimidating the Taiwanese people, gave Lee a boost that pushed his share of votes over 50 percent.

None of these four incidents is unambiguous. But all can be read as examples where a non-nuclear weapon state, faced with threats of attack by a nuclear weapon state, has gone ahead exactly as if such a threat did not exist. It follows that faced with the threat of nuclear blackmail, a non-nuclear weapon state is by no means bound to knuckle under. In the case we are postulating of a non-nuclear Britain ejecting a nuclear-armed Argentina from the Falkland Islands, the question of whether or not the British would go ahead would depend on many factors. Among these are the economic and political value of the Islands, the steadfastness of the British Prime Minister, a judgment on whether the supposed nuclear punishment would actually ensue, bearing in mind the rationality or otherwise of the Argentine junta and calculations about international public and political reactions if nuclear weapons were threatened. Back in April 1982 the Falklands War was viewed as a very risky operation but the government went ahead. It is far from certain that a non-nuclear Britain would not do exactly the same again, even if Argentina had nuclear weapons.

This is not to argue that a non-nuclear Britain could never be constrained in its actions vis-à-vis a nuclear adversary by fear of nuclear blackmail. Conceivably it might be, though we have failed to unearth a single unequivocal precedent. What is clear is that for Britain to submit under these circumstances is far from a foregone conclusion.

An unlikely 'just in case' rationale

The most important factor in the possible scenarios would be the attitude of the United States. We have to assume an America that is generally supportive of Britain, as without this there could be no British Trident in any case. And within this context we have had to postulate a very narrow range of circumstances where the situation would be regarded as grave enough for a non-nuclear Britain to suffer nuclear blackmail without the blackmailer needing to consider the US or other nuclear arsenals being brought into the balance. An alliance with another nuclear protector is not impossible. Ballistic missile defence might provide another line of response if the nuclear threat were expected to be missile delivered, though that would rule out all but the most sophisticated nuclear-armed states. Both of these kinds of approaches are highly problematic and carry many ifs ands and buts.

A far more likely scenario is one in which Britain would rely on adroit diplomacy coupled with a determination to call any would-be blackmailer's bluff. All the examples we have examined point in this direction. The 183 non-nuclear-weapon nations find themselves in precisely this situation and could logically use the British government's blackmail argument for acquiring nuclear weapons of their own. Seen in this light the British determination to replace Trident becomes a decision based on a philosophy of British exceptionalism. It is a "just-in-case" posited on a most unlikely concatenation of circumstances.

An insurance policy, provided the cost is not exorbitant, against a low risk but devastating event is not unreasonable. In a highly volatile security environment, where nuclear proliferation is a continuing danger, there may be some comfort in believing in such insurance. But in no other area of military provision is the justification of a general insurance against the unforeseen accepted. At a moment when the defence budget for equipment is heavily overdrawn[23] and with other important areas of procurement apparently ring-fenced[24] it is time to reflect on how thin the justification for Trident really is and to evaluate it fairly and rigorously against the opportunity costs.

The purpose of this paper has been to examine the statement "we can only deter such threats [of nuclear blackmail] in future through the continued possession of nuclear weapons". We have shown that this is far from being the brass-bound certainty for which it is commonly taken. The precedents do not support it. It is a partial truth at best, and needs to be carefully balanced against the many other factors which will determine the future security of this Kingdom.


[1] White Paper, The future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent Cm 6994. December 2006. pp. 6-7.

[2] This paper does not discuss the point raised in the White Paper about countering the "risk that some countries might in future seek to sponsor nuclear terrorism from their soil". It is far from clear that British possession of nuclear weapons could play any part in addressing this problem. See Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Butler and Stephen Pullinger, Worse than Irrelevant: British Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, London: Acronym Institute, 2006.

[3] No doubt the Government of Argentina judged - correctly - that the British would not risk the opprobrium of breaching the taboo on nuclear use in such circumstances.

[4] At the time of writing (17 August 2008) Russia is reported have indicated that they may point nuclear missiles at western Europe from bases in Kaliningrad and Belarus. They are also said to be thinking of reviving a military presence in Cuba. The Sunday Times, 17 August 2008, p.1.

[5] Defence White Paper. December 2003, Cm 6041-1. Paragraph 3.5, p.8

[6] Future Capabilities. July 2004. Cm 6269. Paragraph 1.2, p.2.

[7] Defence Secretary John Reid, House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 27 Oct. 2005. [21902]

[8] The MoD web site claims that the Trident Refit Facility provides "total integrated logistical supply support to attack and UK submarines" including degaussing services.

[9] The exact wording is "source, by-product and special nuclear material, and other material for research on, development of or use in atomic weapons, when the Government of the United States … determines that the transfer of such material is necessary to improve the United Kingdom's atomic weapon design, development or fabrication capability". See also 'Agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the United States of America for Co-operation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes', signed in Washington, July 3, 1958, reproduced as renewed to 2014 in Disarmament Diplomacy 77, pp 57-62.

[10] 1958 Atomic Energy Agreement . UN Treaty Series, 1959, Vol 326, No. 4707, pp. 4-20 Amendment. UN Treaty Series 1960, Vol. 351, No. 4707, pp. 458-464.

[11] Message to Congress from President Bush, 14 June 2004. See http://www.whitehouse.gov

[12] The Heatshield kits were made by Lockheed Martin. The arming, fusing and firing (AF&F) systems for the British warhead were designed by Sandia National Laboratories, and are almost certainly bought from the United States in toto. A new Neutron Generator was designed and built between 1997 and 2002 and first units were supplied to the British in 2003. The Gas Transfer System is also American. Because Tritium gas is radioactive and can penetrate stainless steel it requires special reservoirs. Because it decays to produce helium, thus increasing the pressure in the reservoirs, it has to be replaced regularly. British tritium is transported to America as uranium tritide, converted to tritium gas and loaded into reservoirs at the Savannah River site. Both the Neutron Generators and the Gas Transfer System, being limited life items, are replaced on a regular basis. This is done in the Re-entry Body Process Building at Coulport, before the warheads are fitted to the missiles on board the submarines.

[13] Commodore Tim Hare, formerly Director of Nuclear Policy at the British Ministry of Defence, believes that the only feasible national scenario is if a nuclear weapon state used its nuclear capability to attack the UK or one of our dependent territories. He adds that 'the paradox is that if we do use these weapons, the policy of deterrence has clearly failed. This contradiction makes analysis of the utility of possessing nuclear weapons quite difficult in that any evidence supporting the policy is based on events that do not happen rather than those that do!' (Personal communication).

[14] The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom. 2008. Paragraph 3-11 p. 14

[15] Ibid.

[16] The United States adopted a posture of benevolent neutrality at the time of the Falkland Islands campaign in 1982. Clearly this is an inexact parallel because the adversary, Argentina, was not a nuclear weapons power.

[17] Interestingly this wording was followed closely in the exception allowed by the International Court of Justice in their Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, 8 July 1996,: 'the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.'

[18] Lord Henley. House of Lords, 11 January 1995.

[19] The Royal Navy claims that, since the British sonar is superior to the Americans, this option is also unfeasible.

[20] This is not a complete explanation. The attack on Suez attracted the condemnation of other members of NATO, the Commonwealth and the General Assembly of the United Nations. But it was the run on the pound and the oil embargo orchestrated by the United States that were decisive in forcing the Anglo-French forces to declare a cease-fire and withdraw.

[21] David Broder, 'US Forces Have No Nuclear Arms in Gulf States, No Plans to Use Them,' Los Angeles Times, 2 October 1990, page 6.

[22] Ed Gilley, 'N-Threat Deterred Saddam,' Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 17 May 1991, page 1.

[23] By as much as 17 billion pounds over the next ten years . (personal communication from an MoD official).

[24] Obvious examples are the Aircraft Carrier programme (£3.9bn.) with its necessary complement of Joint Strike Fighters (£7-10bn.), Type 45 Destroyer (£6.5bn.), Astute Class submarine (£3.8bn.), Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (£13bn.), Future Rapid Effects System (£ 14.5bn).

Sir Hugh Beach served for 40 years in the British Army and is a former Master General of the Ordnance. He is currently Chair of the Board of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, a co-Chair of the Verification, Research and Training Information Centre (VERTIC). and served as Director of the Council for Arms Control from 1986 to 1988.

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