The UK White Paper on Renewing Trident: The Wrong Decision at the Wrong Time

31 December 2006

by Rebecca Johnson

Britain is facing a decision about the future of its Trident nuclear weapon system that is rapidly turning into a debate on the role of nuclear weapons in the uncertain world of the 21st century. Though the government initially tried to downplay the decision as "just" about replacing the nuclear submarines, it has been put on the defensive, as senior Conservative officials, including former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo and Shadow Cabinet Spokesperson, Michael Ancram, have joined many Labour and Liberal-Democrat MPs in questioning the relevance and efficacy of nuclear weapons for addressing or deterring the security threats we may foreseeably face.

The debate is essentially about whether it is better for a country like Britain to hold onto its nuclear weapons as an "insurance policy" against unpredictable future threats, or to begin the process of denuclearisation and do our utmost to devalue these weapons of mass destruction and convince others to maintain the nonproliferation regime and seek security without nuclear weapons. Though the issue continues to be wrapped up with party politics, there is growing cross-party concern that the government has not made its case and is unnecessarily pushing the decision through on an artificially constructed deadline. In parallel, the issue touches on sensitivities about Britain's status in the world and nuclear dependence on the United States, on the one hand, and, on the other, an apparent anxiety about the possibility of leaving France with nuclear hegemony in Europe.

The core dilemma, however, is whether Britain is ready to be treated like the majority of other states and comply with treaty obligations that mean relying on the nonproliferation regime and a mixture of non-nuclear tools to reduce nuclear dangers and deter fundamental threats.

The government of Tony Blair has decided the answer is "no", according to the White Paper on The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent that the Prime Minister introduced to the House of Commons on December 4, 2006. In 36 pages, the White Paper presents the government's case for an early decision be taken to procure new nuclear submarines to carry UK nuclear weapons well beyond 2050. Much of the Labour Party and a majority of people in Britain believe that Mr Blair is pushing the wrong decision at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. But many also appear to believe that the UK parliament will put party loyalty above national security and vote in favour of the White Paper, as they did for the war in Iraq.

The Great Reductions Con

Despite the existing Trident having been designed with the Cold War and Soviet Union in mind, the government has plumped for renewing it with something practically identical, but perhaps with only three submarines and a slightly smaller stockpile. In this regard, the government hopes to deflect international and domestic critics of the decision by pledging "a 20 percent reduction" in "our stockpile of operationally available warheads", noting also that "our current holding [of Trident D5 missiles] has reduced to 50" from 58, "as a result of a number of test firings".

Contrary to how it might sound, this carefully worded offer does not commit Britain to reduce the number of nuclear weapons that are continuously deployed, armed and ready to launch on the order of the Prime Minister. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) continues to insist that the UK posture of deterrence requires the maintenance of continuous at-sea patrols even if there are only three submarines, and the announced reduction in stockpile will not necessarily mean fewer missiles and warheads than currently deployed.

At present each submarine is equipped with 16 US D5 missiles and 48 warheads. While most will be similar to the US W76 warheads of around 100 kilotons, it is likely that some are smaller - 5 kt or below - with the intention of providing what the MoD calls a "sub-strategic" capability. Though the White Paper's emphasis is on replacing the submarine "platforms", it holds open the option of developing new warheads. However, as with questions relating to the US missiles, such crucial issues will be decided at a later date. Decisions on the warheads are unlikely to be discussed publicly, but there have been strong indications that the MoD would prefer to have some missiles equipped with differently-sized single warheads for a potential diversity of strategic and tactical purposes.

There is a contradiction here: government spokespeople generally insist that UK nuclear weapons exist in order to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, so the justification for a diversity of warheads rests on the supposition that the more usable the nuclear weapons are made to appear, the more convincingly they will deter. However, the belief that a smaller nuclear weapon will not cause as much death and destruction may also make it easier for military and political decision-makers to contemplate 'sub-strategic' missions, thereby lowering the threshold of use and undermining the taboo that was an important factor in preventing the hostile use of nuclear weapons since 1945.

Since the liter version of Trident will have little or no effect on the actual deployment of Britain's nuclear weapons, it appears to function primarily as an exercise in reducing opposition, especially from sceptics in the Labour Party or states parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Facing criticism for mishandling the decision, which would commit public money (variously estimated at between £20 billion and £76 billion) on a further generation of nuclear weapons to extend UK nuclear reliance past 2025, the government has tried to downplay the implications of its choice, as if it were really only about renewing a few submarines. Supporters of replacement are placing great emphasis on the UK jobs that such orders would maintain, but the White Paper makes no promises that the order will go to a British shipyard. This decision, to be taken at a later date, will be dependent on UK industry offering "value for money". Likewise, the government has secured agreement from the United States that Britain will be invited to participate in discussions on the D5 missiles, including life extension, but as past experience shows, this does not guarantee that the US will meet its ally's needs if US defence and budgetary decisions require something different in the future.

Tony Blair's Legacy

Mr Blair has announced that there will be a parliamentary vote on the White Paper's recommendations in March 2007. Since he is due to leave office a few months later, his obvious intention is to cut short debate and tie the hands of his successor. On one or two occasions during the past 18 months, Gordon Brown has uttered low-key remarks about "retaining the independent nuclear deterrent". Though trumpeted by the media as proof that Mr Brown would do the same as Mr Blair clearly wants, the Chancellor only repeated the careful phrase used in New Labour's 2005 manifesto. As lawyers and political analysts have pointed out, this can be read several ways, and may constitute little more than a promise not to decommission the current Trident nuclear weapons before the next election (due at the latest in 2010). Since neither the manifesto nor Mr Brown's statement implies an agreement to spend billions of pounds on extending nuclear reliance beyond the 2020s, much could hinge on the vote in March.

Depending on how the proposal is worded, political analysis suggests that if the vote goes ahead in March, Mr Blair's decision to renew Trident will be carried. Even if the Labour Party is split about whether Britain should continue nuclear business as usual, enough Conservative MPs will support getting new submarines to keep nuclear weapons for as long as possible. Mr Blair appeared less sure of his own Cabinet, as he gave them only a few hours to read already-printed copies of the White Paper before he presented it to the House of Commons.

Aware that a significant number of Cabinet members are deeply sceptical about nuclear deterrence claims and, if left to their own assessments and consciences would oppose spending public money on the next generation of nuclear weapons, Mr Blair created a situation of artificial haste to ensure that the Cabinet, which is expected to abide by the principle of 'collective responsibility' would give him a 'loyal' rubber stamp before he took the White Paper to the House of Commons. No opportunity was provided for Ministers to question, edit or change the recommendations contained in the White Paper, which have now gone forward as a Cabinet-supported decision.

Widespread Opposition

Public opposition to Trident renewal is growing. Articles and letters in a range of British newspapers and publications reveal a scepticism that transcends traditional politics. In Scotland, more than 70 percent of the public oppose nuclear weapons. With elections due in May that could see the Scottish National Party holding the balance of power in Scotland's devolved Parliament at Holyrood (Edinburgh), Mr Blair's determination to replace Trident is fast becoming an electoral liability for the Scottish Labour Party.

The issue is particularly contentious in Scotland because the UK nuclear weapons are deployed from the Clyde nuclear submarine base, at Faslane near Glasgow. As part of this deployment, the warheads are stored at the Royal Navy Armaments Depot at Coulport, several miles from Faslane, and have to be regularly transported there by road from Britain's nuclear laboratories at AWE Aldermaston and Burghfield, near London. In view of the costs and risks to Scottish taxpayers, the SNP has recently proposed charging the UK government £1 million per nuclear warhead that is transported on Scottish roads to Coulport and Faslane.[1]

Since September 2006, thousands of people have joined in civil resistance and demonstrations against Trident in various cities and at Faslane and Aldermaston. Over the past few months, hundreds have been arrested and detained for disrupting "unlawful" nuclear deployments and preparations for build-up at these bases, including Members of the European Parliament (MEP) and other European legislatures, Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), Ministers (and their equivalent) of Scottish and English Faiths, university professors, hospital doctors, authors, musicians, teachers, students, and many more.[2]

The government promised that there would be full consultations prior to a decision being taken, but has put nothing formally in place. This is in stark contrast with the year-long consultations undertaken prior to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, after Labour first came to government. The Parliamentary Defence Select Committee, which is now at the third stage of its inquiry into Trident replacement, complained about the lack of cooperation and information it had received from the MoD, and stated that "the public should know what decisions will be required, when they must be taken and implemented, and what factors are driving consideration of the issue now."[3] The Defence Committee also warned that a series of funding and planning decisions already being taken under the rubric of 'keeping options open' may amount - by default or intention - to a decision to develop the next generation of nuclear weapons.

The Acronym Institute has been at the forefront of arguing for the decision on Trident renewal to be placed in the context of a comprehensive security and defence review that starts with a reappraisal of Britain's role in the world and evaluation of the security challenges relevant to the 21st century, and combines the perspectives of foreign affairs, defence, non-proliferation and international law.[4]

To date, more than a hundred MPs from all major parties have signed an Early Day Motion calling for the decision on Trident replacement to be delayed until there has been a full and relevant consultation. If the government ignores such concerns and puts its White Paper recommendations to a vote in March, it may face an amendment remitting the vote to a later date to allow time for a genuine process of debate and consultation to be carried out. In any case, the fact that Trident replacement is being so closely identified with Mr Blair's legacy makes it likely that the debate will continue past any decision taken in March, and that future leaders will be expected to revisit the issue and reconsider Britain's nuclear policy in light of real security needs.

The White Paper Critiqued

The White Paper appears to be stuck in a time warp. It is a mishmash of cold war platitudes and scaremongering about new and unknown threats. Even where the reader may share the government's concerns about some of the identified threats, the White Paper disappoints with its dearth of evidence or argument to back up its assumptions and conclusions that perpetuating reliance on nuclear weapons is the only (or right) response for Britain to be able to deter or address such threats.

In keeping with its style of presenting assertions as if they were self-evident facts, the White Paper reduces realistic and compelling arguments about the positive role Britain could have in devaluing nuclear weapons and creating the conditions to facilitate global disarmament to parodies. It sets up and then dismisses such parodies and a variety of straw arguments, but does not seriously engage with the fundamental questions relating to common security, deterrence or reducing nuclear dangers.

Nuclear and conventional weapons are juxtaposed as if these were the only defence tools available. Though it relies on a projection of new or 'unknown' threats, the White Paper glosses over 21st century complexities and dumbs down consideration of alternatives to nuclear weapons. It simultaneously claims Britain's importance, for example as an "independent centre of nuclear decision-making", while implying that we are just a passive bystander, incapable of influencing the security and non-proliferation environment if we took a decision to renounce nuclear weapons.

The White Paper's main assumptions, claims and conclusions are critiqued below.

"Since 1956, the nuclear deterrent has underpinned our ability to [secure international peace and security]... it has been used to deter acts of aggression against our vital interests, never to coerce others." [p 6][5]

Though it's been convenient for British people to regard the assertion that Britain's bomb deterred the Soviet Union as a 'truism', it is contested in light of documents from the Soviet era that are now becoming available. At best, the proposition is unknowable. We can only speculate about the relative weight to accord various Cold War variables, but there is no credible way to demonstrate the significance - or not - of nuclear weapons per se.

Labelling a succession of different kinds of nuclear weapons "the nuclear deterrent", as repetitiously done in the White Paper, may bind the concepts of nuclear weapons and deterrence together linguistically, but it does not say anything about the real world or create a logical or factual connection if one does not exist. Naming a cat 'dog' does not confer the ability to bark. Whether UK nuclear weapons deterred in the past or are capable of deterring specific threats in the future are questions that require examination, evidence and argument. The White Paper fails to do this, and relies instead on unsubstantiated assertions.

Contrary to the 'truism', history provides evidence that US and/or British nuclear weapons demonstrably failed to deter some very serious conflicts involving "acts of aggression" against what were perceived as our "interests". These include the Korean War; Vietnam War; Falklands War; and the invasion of Kuwait, leading to the first Gulf War. The first two appeared as part of the quintessentially Cold War contest of 'Western values versus communism'. US nuclear weapons failed to deter, prevent or influence the conduct and outcome of these conflicts.

With regard to the Falklands War and invasion of Kuwait, despotic leaders calculated correctly that they would not incur nuclear retaliation for their aggressive actions, despite not having nuclear weapons of their own. Far from being an effective deterrent, the evidence indicates that UK nuclear weapons were completely irrelevant to the decisions of the Argentinian generals; or of Saddam Hussein when he paraded British captives - including the UK ambassador - on Kuwaiti and international television, in what was a calculated public humiliation for Iraq's former colonial master.

Deterrence requires some level of shared values and reliable communications among protagonists, which took time to develop during the Cold War and is unlikely to work with the kind of threats - including terrorists and failed states with weapons of mass destruction - that the government now envisages. In addition, to make an adversary believe that a nuclear weapon threat is credible, it is necessary to demonstrate a preparedness to use the weapon. This entails concomitant risks of miscalculation, inadvertence or accident, as was clearly shown when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of catastrophe in 1962.

It was clear then, and for the rest of the Cold War, that nuclear weapons increased global insecurity. For a time, the appalling prospect of nuclear war and shared fears of mass annihilation and nuclear winter created a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons. This underpinned the concept of deterrence enshrined in the concept of 'mutual assured destruction'. Along with the taboo, the US and Soviet Union undertook measures to restore stability, including various bilateral communications and confidence-building mechanisms and a number of treaties, including the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963; the Outer Space Treaty in 1967; and the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which became the bedrock for the global nonproliferation regime. They also pursued bilateral arms control from the 1960s through to the end of the Cold War, notably the strategic arms limitation and reduction talks epitomised by the SALT and START treaties and - propelled by civilian resistance and upheavals in Europe, the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The fall of the Berlin Wall made possible the Bush-Gorbachev agreements to reduce threats from tactical nuclear weapons, but these were not enshrined in any legally-binding treaties or made subject to verification.

Though such measures to enhance East-West communication and control and reduce nuclear weapons helped the US and USSR to avoid direct nuclear confrontation and mutual annihilation, it is a stretch too far to claim that their nuclear weapons - or Britain's - underpinned international peace and security. Arms sales continued to grow across the world, and many millions died as the major powers pursued proxy conflicts with each other by arming and fuelling wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Europe was spared, but the government has failed to provide any evidence to suggest that war was averted in Europe because of our nuclear weapons, rather than, say, the development of the European Union, less offensive military intentions on the part of the Soviet leadership than was assumed (or presented by US/Western leadership) at the time.

Soviet archives indicate that far from planning to invade Europe, the Soviet Union was put under great stress by having to divert resources into trying to match the US nuclear arsenal because of the fear generated by the perceived threats from US (and then British and French) nuclear weapons. Hence, the development and build-up of nuclear weapons by one side provoked the build-up of nuclear weapons by others. If Moscow had had any political or ideological impulse to undertake military adventurism in Europe, history suggests that it was most effectively deterred by its own compelling economic and political constraints.

From President Kennedy's Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, to General Lee Butler, President George H. W. Bush's Commander-in-Chief, US Strategic Command (1989-91), senior military practitioners have expressed growing scepticism about the efficacy of nuclear reliance, even during the Cold War.[6]

Not only does the White Paper fail to justify its premise that our nuclear weapons aided peace and international security and deterred acts of aggression against the UK and its vital interests; the available evidence appears rather to point to the contrary. At the very least, the British public should expect the government to make a case based on more than the repetition of unsubstantiated assertions. Too much of our future security is at stake to rely on cold war myths and voodoo mantras about deterrence. The government needs to provide and examine evidence from the real world, based on the record of what actually happened in the past 51 years.

Even if nuclear weapons did pay a role in deterring war among the major Cold War powers, relying on them in the manifestly different conditions the UK now faces reveals a naive and complacent stretch of faith. Adherence to a policy of nuclear reliance in a proliferating world increases the risks that deterrence will fail. If nuclear deterrence fails, remaining decision-makers (or even the submarine commanders, in a worst case scenario), may feel compelled to use UK nuclear weapons in retaliation, which could kill thousands, perhaps millions more civilians, as well as escalating the threats for Britain and the rest of the world.

"...the global context does not justify complete UK nuclear disarmament." [p 6]

To back up this assertion, the government makes five specific claims:

i) "significant nuclear arsenals remain, some of which are being modernised and expanded"

The circularity of this argument is superficially persuasive, but deeply flawed. The government appears to be justifying its desire for Britain to retain its current nuclear weapons in perpetuity by citing similar decisions by others. By committing to acquiring a system to follow on from Trident, with upgraded submarines, perhaps also incorporating modified (modernised) warheads, Britain is excusing itself by creating an excuse for everyone else. Across the world, national legal systems and normal morality rightly reject the "others are doing it too" defence, even (especially?) by gang members who may genuinely feel threatened by knife or gun cultures that their own posturing with such weapons perpetuates and provokes.

ii) "the number of states possessing weapons has continued to grow"

It depends where the baseline is drawn, but there were more nuclear weapons and more states with nuclear weapons 15 years ago than now. The enhanced political value placed on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in the early 1990s played a major role in enabling South Africa, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to close down nuclear weapons facilities and dismantle or give up the nuclear weapons on their territory. They subsequently joined the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states. Brazil, which at one time was expected to become the fifth nuclear threshold state (after Israel, India, Pakistan and South Africa), also renounced any ambition in that direction and finally joined the NPT a few years after they signed up to the Treaty of Tlatelolco, establishing a nuclear weapon free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In that time, only one state - North Korea - has sought to withdraw from the NPT. Though North Korea's nuclear test on October 9, 2006, and its claim to have produced some nuclear weapons are undoubtedly a set-back for the nonproliferation regime, it is simply nonsense to suggest that this justifies UK nuclear weapons. If anything, the North Korean example illustrates the predictable consequences of military threats and nuclear sabre-rattling, as practised since 2001 by the Bush administration, in a context when major nuclear powers are revaluing and modernising their nuclear forces and undermining international law and the multilateral nonproliferation regime.

It is true that India and Pakistan have gone more overt, declaring themselves nuclear weapon states after conducting underground test explosions in May 1998. After initial condemnation, the international community did not take long to accept them back into the fold, particularly when President Bush has embraced them so closely as allies in the "war on terror", resuming arms sales to Pakistan and, most recently, concluding a nuclear deal with India that is widely perceived as undermining some of the basic principles and practices of the nonproliferation regime, including export controls on nuclear technology.

The "nuclear ambitions of Iran", cited in Tony Blair's introduction to the White Paper, are still many years from a nuclear capability. This is not to say that the world can afford to be complacent. Though we are right to be very concerned, Iran's ambitions are not going to be thwarted by British nuclear weapons. Quite the reverse: Iran's ambitions may be contained and kept as unfulfilled as Libya's, but the strategies for doing so will require at a minimum the devaluing of nuclear weapons, strengthening the nonproliferation regime, and reducing the status, value, additional security and power projection that many in Iran think are being bestowed on Israel, India and Pakistan by their possession of nuclear weapons.

iii) "ballistic missile technology has also continued to proliferate"

As for ballistic missiles, one of the foremost US nonproliferation experts, Joseph Cirincione, noted in January 2007: "The ballistic missile threat is often exaggerated by government officials in their justification for favoured programs. The 'missile scare' of the past ten years provoked by the inaccurate assessment of the 1998 Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, has proven to be a false alarm. None of the threats predicted by the commission developed. No new nation acquired ballistic missile technology over the past nine years (in fact, no new nation has started a ballistic missile program in the past 20 years). Nor did North Korea, Iran or Iraq develop an ICBM, as the commission predicted they would. The only missile development of any consequence has been the testing of medium-range ballistic missiles by North Korea and Iran, with ranges of 1000-1300 kilometres. Efforts by North Korea to develop longer-range missiles have failed; Iran has announced programs to extend the range of their Scud-based missiles but without any demonstrated success."[7]

Cirincione concludes, "the ballistic missile threat Europe faces today is limited and changing very slowly. Russia's arsenal is steadily declining and this decline could be accelerated through negotiated reductions. China's arsenal is limited and could be limited further through negotiations. Iran is the only other conceivable threat but there is little evidence that Iran could develop a long-range missile capable of hitting Central Europe with nuclear warheads within the next 15 years. Here, too, internal political developments and diplomatic efforts and measured military preparedness could deter and even eliminate this threat before it develops."[8]

In an article outlining two multilateral approaches to constrain the proliferation of missiles, President Clinton's former ambassador for nonproliferation, Thomas Graham, and Indian expert Dinshaw Mistry noted that the major impediment to getting a global missile nonproliferation treaty would be the nuclear powers, who would "seek to retain their nuclear missiles in any such treaty".[9] This again exposes the circularity of positions relied on in the White Paper: it justifies Trident replacement as necessary to defend against a possible future threat that we would be in a much stronger position to prevent here and now if we weren't so bent on keeping our nuclear options as wide open as possible.

iv) "most industrialised countries have the capability to develop chemical and biological weapons"

This is technically true but very misleading. Most pharmaceutical manufacturers and kitchens also have the "capability" to develop some kinds of chemical and biological weapons (CBW), but that does not mean that there is an increased threat from chefs and people who work for Chemists and Drugstores. To constitute a threat requires not only capabilities and know-how, but intentions and concealment. This assertion carries uncomfortable echoes of the exaggerations and innuendos in the "dodgy dossiers" crafted in 2002-3 to create sufficient fear to propel Labour MPs into voting for the war on Iraq.

Two further aspects embedded in this assertion need to be unpicked. Including it here implies that Trident would have some role to play in countering biological and chemical weapon threats. First, in accordance with Britain's international legal obligations and security assurances, nuclear weapons cannot lawfully be used to counter a biological or chemical threat from a non-nuclear state. As Professor Michael Clarke of the University of London points out, "There is no comparison between the strategic destructive power of nuclear weapons on the one hand and of chemical and biological weapons on the other."[10] Nuclear weapons would not be a proportionate response even in the event of a significant attack using biological or chemical weapons, and so would violate humanitarian law and the laws governing armed conflict.

Second, there are widely adhered-to international treaties and agreements that prohibit biological and chemical weapons. These have created international norms that will act as a much more effective deterrent on any government contemplating the use of such weapons. Even though Saddam Hussein was hanged before he could be tried for using chemical weapons against Iranian forces and the Iraqi-Kurdish town of Halabja in the 1980s, the fact that this use has been widely condemned as a war-crime will give the deterrent effect a personal dimension for the leader(s) of any regime that might consider CBW use in the future.

v) some countries might in future seek to sponsor nuclear terrorism from their soil

As Tony Blair himself acknowledged, "I do not think that anyone pretends that the independent nuclear deterrent is a defence against terrorism."[11] So, in view of the potency of evoking nuclear terrorism as a threat, the White Paper has sought to draw a link by asserting "retention of an effective nuclear deterrent by the UK has a role to play in reducing the potential threat from state-sponsored nuclear-armed terrorists". [p 20] As a justification for Britain holding on to nuclear weapons, this tenuous linkage has the same flaws as the previous assertion about CBW. Nuclear pre-emption or retaliation would inevitably kill thousands of innocent non-combatants and violate the legal requirement of proportionality.

The nuclear threat in these cases would be far less likely to deter than existing collective political, diplomatic and economic tools, and any nuclear use could profoundly compromise Britain's security and international standing in the longer term.

The taboo on using or assisting others to use nuclear weapons is even stronger than the taboos on CBW use. Moreover, UN Security Council resolution 1540 (2004) has placed an obligation on all governments to enact domestic legislation to comply with the treaties and do everything in their power to prevent non-state actors from acquiring the materials and technologies that might lead to biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. While this does not guarantee against a CBW or nuclear terrorist attack, it will give serious pause to any government, manufacturer or political group that might be tempted to assist or turn a blind eye to terrorists seeking to acquire any kind of weapon of mass destruction.

Finally, there is a post 9/11 twist that fatally undermines the concept of nuclear deterrence with regard to extremists driven by religious or political ideologies. Not only would such aggressors not be deterred by nuclear or other WMD held by their target countries or anyone else; on the contrary, their game plan could include provoking a nuclear or similarly disproportionate retaliation in order to turn moral outrage against the retaliator and recruit more people to their causes.

As Professor Malcolm Chalmers noted, "Far from being deterred by nuclear weapons, terrorists would be delighted to provoke a Trident retaliation, fully aware of the global opprobrium that this would bring on Britain. Even a nuclear attack on the UK by an identifiable 'rogue' state could not justify a British nuclear response in which the main victims would be thousands of innocent civilians. Regime change using conventional forces would be a more appropriate, and moral, response."[12]

"We can only deter such threats in future through the continued possession of nuclear weapons." [p 7]

On the contrary: as analysed above, Britain's nuclear weapons cannot provide us with security or convincing deterrence, but they may increase our insecurity by making us a more attractive and vulnerable target than countries without nuclear weapons.

'deterrent' label used as advertising ploy

In the absence of any evidence, arguments or attempt to make a case for nuclear deterrence having had efficacy in the past or how it would work with regard to potential future threats, one of the ploys utilised assiduously in the White Paper is to refer only to the "nuclear deterrent", sometimes qualified by "independent" or abbreviated to "the deterrent". This is an advertising technique, as when a drink is labelled 'naturally good' to distract consumers from the fact that it is packed with sugar and chemical colour and flavour enhancers. Such labels are not only dishonest; they function to influence decision-making. It is psychologically harder for MPs to vote against having a "deterrent", however tenuous, than if the words "nuclear weapons" were straightforwardly used in the government's discussions.

The White Paper's case for gaining public acceptance (and MPs' votes) for renewing Trident rests entirely on its unproven (and generally unprovable) assumptions and statements about deterrence. People may consent to nuclear weapons that are there in order not to be used, as government spokespeople used to proclaim, while magically preventing anyone else from using nuclear weapons against us. The idea of renewing Trident becomes far less attractive when put in terms of nuclear weapons that a political leader in the future might decide to launch against another country, where they could kill hundreds of thousands of people.

Though the White Paper goes further than most such documents in explaining why it prefers Trident's particular capabilities in terms of range, readiness and the diversity of targets it can hit simultaneously, it does not, for obvious reasons, discuss targeting doctrine and strategy. Information on this is classified in Britain, but available in an unclassified version from the United States, with which UK doctrine and targeting are harmonised.[13] UK officials insist there are some critical differences between British and American doctrines and targeting policies, but have failed to provide information on what these differences are and why.

Therefore, before jumping to the conclusion that nuclear deterrence is a good or sensible thing, it is worth looking at the kind of targets that are being explicitly considered as part of US deterrence doctrine. While it is true that UK Trident missiles are not currently targeted at anyone in particular, a host of military and civilian targets anywhere in the world can be programmed in as quickly as it takes to key the coordinates into a computer.

Though the UK reduced the "notice to fire" from hours to days in 1998, the UK's current "deterrent posture" requires that whenever the submarines go on patrol they are equipped with armed warheads attached to navigationally primed missiles able to be launched at a moment's notice once they receive the order which, according to the White Paper, can only come from the Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister has been incapacitated, what then? While accepting that the PM's authorisation is the political requirement, are we expected to believe that the commanders on board the submarines do not possess the physical capability to launch the nuclear weapons on board in extremis?

"Conventional capabilities cannot have the same deterrent effect" [p 7]

Again, this is an assertion without a shred of evidence or analysis. The vast majority of the world's nations, many of which are in far more volatile or vulnerable regions than Britain, have concluded the opposite. This assertion completely contradicts the premise on which the nonproliferation regime is based. It severely undermines international efforts to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by countries such as North Korea and Iran, and if taken seriously, could provide justifications for nuclear proliferation by many more governments. For the government to make such an assertion is deeply irresponsible, and flies in the face of history and Britain's broader security and nonproliferation objectives.

The issue is not whether deterrence is a useful concept for defence, but whether nuclear weapons are an essential - or even useful - component of actual deterrence. To the extent that deterrence works, it is the product of the interplay of multiple instruments, any one of which might fail. As well as hard and soft power, psychological, cultural and communications factors play important but not necessarily predictable roles in deterrence. It is inappropriate - and counterproductive - to rest the weight of deterrence on a single weapon system: if that were justifiable, all governments would feel duty-bound to provide such protection to their populace.

Finally, the possibility that deterrence may fail is inherent. Adherence to a policy of nuclear deterrence in a proliferating world increases the risks of its failure, and may then cause nuclear weapons to be used, which would likely prove worse than the original threat.

Renewing [Trident] is fully consistent with all our international obligations.[p 7]

On the contrary, renowned international lawyers have concluded that:

  • The use of the Trident system would breach international law, in particular because it would infringe the "intransgressible" requirement that a distinction must be drawn between combatants and non-combatants;
  • The replacement of Trident would constitute a breach of Article VI of the NPT; and
  • Such a breach would, in legal terms, be a "material breach" of the NPT.[14]

To justify its claim to legality, the White Paper in Section 2 argues that the NPT "recognises the UK's status" and that Britain has substantially reduced its arsenal and is much smaller than the major nuclear powers. In the hope of being perceived as complying with its nuclear disarmament obligations under Article VI, the government goes a step further, and offers to reduce the "stockpile of operationally available warheads" by 20 %, resulting in "almost a 50 % reduction compared to the plans of the previous government".

Previous governments' levels of overkill are not disputed, particularly when the Conservatives brought Trident into service in 1994, several years after it had been rendered militarily obsolete by the end of the cold war. However, other governments' failures to take their treaty obligations seriously cannot constitute a justification for the present government to make the same mistakes, albeit 20 % smaller. Particularly since the treaty obligations were made more urgent and explicit in two consecutive meetings of NPT parties, in 1995 and 2000. If a decision is wrong for Britain's security and the nonproliferation regime, it isn't improved by making it only 80 % as bad as the last lot.

Unlike past government statements which appeared to think the NPT had 'legitimised' or 'legalised' this White Paper more accurately states that the NPT "recognises" the UK's status as a nuclear weapon state in 1968. What it omits to acknowledge is that in line with this recognition, the NPT placed on Britain (and the other NWS) the obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith. As noted by the White Paper, no time-table was accorded this obligation. When the NPT came up for renewal in 1995, and then at its Review Conference in 2000, the non-nuclear weapon states expressed immense frustration that 25-30 years on, this treaty requirement had still not been fulfilled.

As part of efforts to strengthen the NPT, the obligations with regard to safeguards and disarmament have been clarified and further elaborated. In relation to this, all five nuclear-weapon states made an "unequivocal undertaking... to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals", and committed themselves to a programme of "practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI".[15]

As discussed more fully in the Acronym report on Trident, Worse than Irrelevant?, Britain's legal obligations are not merely to reduce the arsenal, but to eliminate it. The withdrawal and ultimate decommissioning during the 1990s of obsolete weapons such as nuclear artillery and nuclear depth and free-fall bombs was, of course, welcome, but the Article VI obligation is not just to reduce the nuclear arsenals, but to eliminate them.

By no legally admissible reasoning would it be consistent with these obligations for Britain to procure new submarines to carry continuously refurbished US ballistic missiles with up to 160 refurbished or possibly new warheads, with the intention of having this renewed nuclear weapon system come into service in 15-20 years time and run for up to 30 years after that.

The White Paper is not promising to reduce its existing Trident system, which would be welcomed as a step towards giving it up altogether. However it is dressed up, the White Paper's actual proposal is to maintain at least 80 % of Britain's nuclear weapons for a further 30 plus years, representing an overall increase in capability and longevity.

This is not disarmament, but "nuclear re-armament", as noted by Kofi Annan. In pursuing the renewal or modernisation of existing arsenals, the outgoing UN Secretary-General warned that the nuclear weapon states "should not imagine that this will be accepted as compatible with the NPT".

Violating the NPT

While the various steps that the UK has taken towards reducing its arsenal since 1991 and ceasing nuclear testing and fissile material production are welcome, these should not obscure the fact that Britain will be violating the NPT and several other international legal obligations if it acquires and deploys a further generation of nuclear weapons, even if there are 'only' 3 submarines and 160 warheads and they are designed to look almost exactly the same as the current Trident system.

The White Paper makes misleading reference to the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), saying that it "rejected the argument that [the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons] would necessarily be unlawful". In fact, three of the 14 eminent Judges hearing the case took the view that any and all uses of nuclear weapons would be unlawful, even if the very survival of the state was at stake, while seven felt unable to make that determination - as the law then stood - and the remaining four considered that the use of nuclear weapons to ensure the survival of the state would be permissible under international law. Though the White Paper provides only a thin overview of doctrine and targeting policy, it is hard to see how any envisaged use would pass this high legal threshold.

The White Paper Proposes Trident Lite

The White Paper considered four generic options: air-launched cruise missiles; Trident missiles on surface ships; a land-based Trident system; and a submarine-based Trident system akin to what is currently deployed. As predicted in Acronym publications, the government has plumped for Trident lite - a slightly reduced submarine-based system with US Trident D5 missiles. This lite version of Trident offers a small reduction in the stockpile ceiling to 160 rather than the present 200, and the possibility (not yet decided) of paying for three rather than four submarines, though the White Paper has made clear that it does not envisage changing the current "continuous deterrent patrolling" at sea, which it argues is essential for "invulnerability and assuredness" and to "motivate the crews".

Trident Lite is that classic mistake of weak governments - an apparent compromise that pleases nobody. There is no convincing military or political case to justify retaining the current, cold-war-designed Trident nuclear system, let alone buying and deploying the same system all over again, albeit with up to 40 fewer warheads. Though NPT parties seem keen to give the NWS the benefit of the doubt time and time again, the reductions offered in the White Paper are far too insignificant to count as compliance with Article VI of the NPT.

Since the cost savings of Trident-lite over Trident are not very big, the government appears to be politically banking on their slightly scaled down version being more acceptable to domestic and international opinion than commissioning the full-blown Trident or, worse still, a more flexible, provocative or vulnerable air-, land- or sea (surface)-based system.

The Foreign Office has embarked on a "charm offensive" to explain the government's decision, with great emphasis being placed on presenting the 20 % reduction as a significant step towards fulfilment of Britain's article VI obligations.

Trident lite will extend dependency on the United States. Britain relies on US ballistic missiles, which are manufactured by US arms giant Lockheed Martin, which also owns 30 % of the consortium that manages AWE Aldermaston, where the UK warheads are manufactured, with extensive research and design cooperation from the United States and even some US-made components and materials.

The current Vanguard submarines and any envisaged follow-on will also exacerbate tensions with Scotland, where they are deployed at the Clyde Submarine base at Faslane. A significant majority of Scottish public opinion, including major political parties and churches, are opposed to nuclear weapons, and resent having the UK nuclear forces foisted on them. Scotland's concerns have been more prominently voiced since the partial devolution of some responsibilities to the Holyrood parliament.

While defence and foreign policy decisions remain with Westminster, Holyrood has responsibilities for environmental safety and policing. In regard to this, concerns are increasing about the transporting of live nuclear warheads on the roads between Aldermaston and Faslane, and the costs and problems of policing the nuclear base.


The Trident decision embodies both an opportunity and a responsibility to examine Britain's security needs and debate our role in the world for the 21st century. It should not be rushed.

The White Paper has failed to grasp the fundamental changes affecting UK security in the 21st century. It proposes business as usual (albeit 20 % less), when Britain needs to play a more visionary, coherent and pro-active role to prevent threats that nuclear weapons will not prove capable of deterring.

Though the Acronym Institute shares some of the government's concerns about proliferation, the White Paper places the wrong emphasis on the various elements of the threats facing Britain, and specifically in relation to nuclear risks. Much more should be done to support the multilateral treaties and instruments that play a critical role in our national security and as a major component of international deterrence against the use and threat of use of weapons of mass destruction. Preventing the development of further nuclear weapons is an integral part of a successful non-proliferation policy.

Britain must not fudge this historic chance to provide leadership and promote more effective strategies to devalue nuclear weapons and enhance the non-proliferation regime's credibility and reduce nuclear threats worldwide.


[1] Paul Hutcheon, ‘SNP plan £1m toll for Trident’, Sunday Herald, January 21, 2007, pp1-3.

[2] The demonstrations and blockades were organised in acccordance with principles of nonviolence and civil resistance by Faslane 365, Block the Builders and the Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp(aign), the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Scottish CND.

[3] House of Commons Defence Committee, The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the Strategic Context, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06, HC 986, June 30, 2006, HC 986.

[4] Some of the arguments below are drawn from the detailed discussion of the Trident decision published by the Acronym Institute before the government White Paper was issued. See Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Butler and Stephen Pullinger, Worse than Irrelevant? British Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, Acronym Institute, London, October 2006.

[5] All quotes used as sub-heads are taken from the government White Paper, titled The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, issued by the Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Cm 6994, published December 4, 2006.

[6] General Lee Butler, for example, described nuclear deterrence as “a rhetorical sleight of hand, deceptively packaged and oversold”. Speech to the National Press Club, Washington DC, December 5, 1996. On a further occasion, he called nuclear deterrence “a dialogue between the blind and the deaf, born of an irreconcilable contradiction”. Speech to IPPNW, Wellington, NZ, October 2, 1997.

[7] Email communication with the author, January 26, 2007.

[8] Ibid. See also, Joseph Cirincione, The Declining Ballistic Missile Threat, 2005, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC, February 2005. In this, Cirincione states: “At present, neither the United States nor Europe faces a serious threat from nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Russia still fields some 3,550 warheads on over 900 intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, but absent an accidental or unauthorised launch it is very unlikely that these missiles would be used against another nation. Russia’s forces will likely shrink dramatically over the next 10 years to under 1,000 warheads on a few hundred missiles. China fields only 20 warheads on 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles, though it is trying to replace its aging force with a new generation of missiles it hopes to field by the end of the decade. No other potentially hostile nation has a long-range missile that can reach Europe or the United States from its territory.”

[9] Thomas Graham and Dinshaw Mistry, ‘Two Treaties to Contain Missile Proliferation’ Disarmament Diplomacy 82 (Spring 2006).

[10] Michael Clarke, ‘Does my bomb look big in this? Britain’s nuclear choices after Trident’, International Affairs, Volume 80, Issue 1, January 2004.

[11] Tony Blair, House of Commons, Hansard, October 19, 2005, column 841.

[12] Malcolm Chalmers, ‘Long Live Trident?’ Physics World, August 2005.

[13] See Appendix I on Nuclear Doctrine in Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Butler and Stephen Pullinger, Worse than Irrelevant? British Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, Acronym Institute, London, October 2006.

[14] For a fuller discussion, including references to the analyses of Charles Moxley, Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin, see Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Butler and Stephen Pullinger, Worse than Irrelevant? British Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, Acronym Institute, London, October 2006. See also Philippe Sands QC and Helen Law, The United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent: Current and Future Issues of Legality, London, Matrix Chambers and Greenpeace, November 2006.

[15] Final Document of the 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, (Section on Article VI and preambular paras 8-12, Para 15, sub-para 6), NPT/CONF.2000/28 (Vol 1, Part I and II), May 25, 2000.

[16] Calculations based on the frequency and size of the nuclear warhead convoys between Aldermaston and Coulport suggest that Britain may not have manufactured more than 160-170 warheads for the current Trident system, and that the White Paper’s trumpeted “reduction” seeks political gain for making a virtue our of a necessity.

Dr Rebecca Johnson is the executive director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy.

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