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The Future of the British Nuclear Force

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Flickr user See Li, via Wikimedia.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Flickr user See Li, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the leader of the United Kingdom’s opposition Labour Party has drawn renewed attention to the future of Britain’s nuclear force. Corbyn has often spoken out against replacing the UK’s four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which together with their Trident II nuclear missiles are commonly referred to simply as “Trident.” Since nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines are difficult to detect when submerged, if at least one submarine is always at sea a surprise attack on Britain could be answered by a retaliatory nuclear strike. This “second-strike capability,” in the parlance of nuclear strategy, is a powerful deterrent.

TheVanguard class is expected to leave service in the next decade; if they are not replaced and other upgrades not made, the UK’s nuclear force will most likely be retired. Corbyn’s recent “Defense Diversification” platform calls for “transitioning away from nuclear weapons” while protecting defense workers’ employment and “freeing resources for investment in other socially-useful forms of public spending” (via the Guardian). Proponents of Trident counter that, in addition to protecting high-paying defense industry jobs, despite its tight-knit alliances with the nuclear-armed US and France British security can only be guaranteed by an independent nuclear deterrent force under British control.

Corbyn may never become Prime Minister, his anti-Trident views are not universal within the Labour Party (Corbyn recently stated he would not resign if a party policy review favors retaining nuclear weapon; a hostile Dan Hodges notes the difficulty of ‘squaring the circle’ of a party which supports nuclear weapons and a presumptive PM who appears unwilling to ever using them), and the UK’s governing Conservatives are likely to see a Trident replacement passed in 2016, as Corbyn’s platform acknowledges.

But this does not mean that the long process to replace Trident will proceed as planned, as there are many arguments against maintaining Britain’s nuclear force. Most obviously, despite renewed tensions between NATO and Russia the extent to which the UK’s expensive nuclear deterrent actually contributes to British security is unclear, especially given the UK’s close relationship with the nuclear-armed US. The Scottish National Party is also wary of the nuclear force, which is based in Scotland.

Arguably, the threat of Russian aggression paradoxically strengthens the argument for retiring the UK’s nuclear weapons. The British defense budget is finite, and every pound that the UK spends on nuclear weapons is a pound that cannot be spent on the conventional forces relevant to countering Russia’s inching “hybrid warfare” aggression. Prompted by reports that US policymakers have encouraged the UK retire its nuclear force in favor of capabilities that can actually fight and practically support US forces, in 2013 Jarrod Hayes questioned whether costs, not moral objections, might herald the end of nuclear weapons. “The crux of the issue is the assessment by the US that the UK cannot afford to have conventional capabilities sufficient to allow the UK to be a full military partner and submarine-deployed nuclear weapons,” Hayes wrote. Given that the looming need to replace the Trident system is expected to amount to a decade-long 9-10% cut in the UK’s annual defense budget (if it is funded through the Ministry of Defense rather than the Treasury) this question is especially pressing.

The UK would not be the first state to give up its own nuclear weapons: the apartheid South African regime successfully developed a number of nuclear devices, only to voluntarily dismantle them on the eve of democratization.* But retiring Britain’s nuclear force would be unprecedented. In contrast to a half dozen crude nuclear bombs developed by an increasingly-isolated South Africa, the UK is a recognized nuclear-armed state under the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, has fielded nuclear weapons for decades, and has heavily invested in survivable, second strike-capable nuclear missile submarines. Perhaps no less importantly, the UK is a major diplomatic, economic, and military power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. All other permanent UNSC members – China, France, Russia, and the United States – are nuclear weapons states.

Vanguard-class submarine. Photo by CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald - Defence Imagery, via Wikimedia.

Vanguard-class submarine. Photo by CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald – Defence Imagery, via Wikimedia.

Other states have turned away from developing nuclear weapons when they arguably had the option of doing so. Japan is widely thought to refrain from fielding nuclear weapons for political reasons, with the ability to assemble weapons should this policy change. Among others, states like Australia, Argentina, and Brazil all abandoned nascent nuclear weapons programs when their financial and diplomatic costs were judged to outweigh any eventual benefits. But there is a clear difference – perhaps expressed through loss aversion – between deciding not to develop nuclear weapons and giving up a formidable nuclear force. In particular, even if the British public and defense and political establishments accept the argument that the UK nuclear force’s contributions to British security is outweighed by its costs, retiring nuclear weapons would mean giving up an iconic status symbol. In Chris Walsh’s words, detonating Britain’s first nuclear bomb “marked its return to the club of great powers.” Is today’s UK prepared to risk losing any prestige nuclear status brings?

Hayes offered one answer, suggesting that “the rising cost and sophistication of modern weapons systems implies that nuclear weapons are no longer the hallmark of a great power, but instead the ability to field very expensive major conventional weapons systems that can be used in combat.” The point of these status symbols is that they are proxies for military power and, more remotely, other measures of national strength. Despite the nuclear status of all permanent UNSC members, John Mueller has argued in Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to al-Qaeda that some states and their populations do not seem to view nuclear weapons as desirable status symbols. Today it’s arguable that aircraft carriers, not nuclear weapons, better reflect the ability to project power and win the wars that actually happen. Notably, the UK’s two highly-capable (though not comparable to US nuclear-powered supercarriers) Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are currently under construction.

It may seem ridiculous to think that a state with a leading global role like the UK would ever give up nuclear weapons. But it is important to remember that other military status symbols have fallen out of fashion in ways that would have seemed doubtful at the time. Battleships were once a preeminent symbol of national power that aspirant states went to great lengths to field. Today, they are relics of history.

Of course, these two cases are not directly comparable. Nuclear weapons remain the ultimate means of deterrence, while airpower rendered battleships obsolete. Despite these differences, the point is that the value of military status symbols – what is and is not the hallmark of a respected state – can change in unexpected ways. If arguments in favor of retaining the UK’s nuclear force are motivated in part by their prestige — Tony Blair once wrote that retiring Trident would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation,” Richard Norton-Taylor relays — then the calculus of prestige and deterrence versus cost could similarly change.

*Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all chose to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited after the breakup of the USSR.

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