Renewing Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent

by Peter Jenkins

Predictably, on July 18, a large majority in the House of Commons voted in favor of a governmental motion to replace, in the early 2030s, the four Vanguard-class submarines that carry Britain’s nuclear deterrent, at a cost of at least 30 billion pounds.

Had I been a member of parliament (a lone Whig, perhaps), this would have been my contribution to the debate.

Will the UK Need a Nuclear Deterrent in the 2030s?

In opening today’s debate, the prime minister has justified the government’s position by alluding to Russia and North Korea as states that pose a nuclear threat to the United Kingdom.

This is not an occasion on which it would be right to dispute the accuracy of that judgement. I wish only to point out the following.

First, we are not debating the early withdrawal from service of the Vanguard fleet. We are debating whether we will need a nuclear deterrent 15 to 20 years from now. So whether or not Russia and North Korea pose a nuclear threat in 2016 is irrelevant. What should concern us is whether we will be under nuclear threat in the 2030s. That takes us to the heart of the government’s case for renewal: we need to insure against an uncertain future. To that I will return shortly.

Second, it is unclear why the government believes that Britain has greater need of a nuclear deterrent than a NATO partner like Germany. Germany neither possesses nor plans to possess nuclear weapons. Germany relies for nuclear deterrence on the United States. Why can’t we follow their example—if not now, then at least after 2030?

Third, to judge from the prime minister’s statement, the government believes that another risk justifies British retention of a nuclear deterrent: Islamic fundamentalists acquiring nuclear material or nuclear weapons.

The existence of this risk is less questionable than the putative Russian and North Korean nuclear threats. This risk is real and may well intensify over the next 15 years.

But it would be a mistake to assume that such a possibility justifies building four expensive submarines and deploying nuclear weapons. Threatening Islamic terrorists with nuclear retaliation would not deter them from using any nuclear weapon that they managed to acquire or cobble together, including so-called “dirty bombs.”

The terrorist nuclear threat has to be countered by keeping nuclear material and weapons beyond terrorists’ reach. That is the intention behind four Nuclear Security Summits held since 2010 at President Barack Obama’s instigation. Those summits have produced a more rational global strategy for minimising the terrorist nuclear risk than spending tens of billions on a new generation of nuclear weapon submarines.

The UK Contribution to NATO’s Nuclear Deterrent

The government believes that we have an obligation to contribute to NATO’s nuclear deterrent. Philip Dunne, then-minister for defense procurement, told the Commons on April 18: “We have both a political and a moral responsibility to protect our people and allies. The nuclear deterrent is assigned to NATO, and as a leading member of NATO we cannot and should not outsource our commitments to others.”

But political and moral obligations are different in nature from legal obligations. We have chosen to pledge our nuclear force to NATO’s defense. We need not have done so. The French, possessing a similar nuclear force, have preferred to avoid any such voluntary commitment. It is open to us between now and 2030 to substitute a larger contribution to NATO’s conventional forces for our contribution to the nuclear deterrent. It is most unlikely that this would be resented by NATO partners whose priority is to deter a conventional attack from Russia without recourse to nuclear weapons.

True, President Obama’s defense secretary, Ashton Carter, told a BBC interviewer in February that the UK’s nuclear weapons are ”an important part of the deterrent structure of NATO.” It would be a mistake, however, to take that statement entirely at face value. The United States has an interest in the UK retaining submarine-based nuclear weapons. US nuclear weapon submarines make use of the UK force’s base at Faslane. The United States leases to us the Trident missiles carried by our nuclear weapon submarines. US contractors supply those submarines with essential equipment. The laboratories that manufacture and maintain US nuclear warheads value their relationship with the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston.

But the United States is a reasonable partner. It recognizes that in reality our nuclear contribution to NATO is so small (40 warheads deployed at any one time) compared to the US contribution that it is of negligible value to our NATO partners. They would be better off if Britain were to spend less on nuclear weapon systems and more on conventional weapons that could be deployed to deter conventional attack on NATO members.

Obsolescence and Vulnerability

A paradox of the government’s continuing enthusiasm for submarine-launched nuclear weapons is that one of their own publications casts doubt on the wisdom of investing in such a system.

In autumn 2015, the Ministry of Defense’s Strategic Trends Program published Future Operating Environment 2035. According to the report, “By 2035 long-term equipment plans—30-50 year life cycles—may no longer be viable given the rate at which future threats will evolve” and “Very long-term inflexible procurement processes will no longer be sustainable.”

The University of Bristol has since issued a policy briefing paper on the related issue of vulnerability. The authors of the paper argue that the risk of a submarine-based nuclear weapon system becoming increasingly vulnerable to hostile counter-measures must be taken seriously: “Government should consider whether current assumptions of invulnerability can be realistically sustained over a period to 2060 and, if not, how this affects the assumptions and practice of UK nuclear deterrence” and “Government should consider whether sufficient attention has been given to likely developments in undersea warfare.”

In short, in the words of the briefing paper’s authors

Government should consider whether devoting substantial resources to a small number of high-value submarine platforms is a sufficiently resilient strategy for a future operating environment likely to be characterized by rapid technological advancement and the emergence of plausible ASW [Anti-Submarine Warfare] countermeasures.

Insuring Against an Uncertain Future

The nuclear threat to Britain may have dwindled—last autumn the government assessed it as low—but the future is hard to predict. That is the government’s last line of defense for its proposal to invest in a replacement fleet (the Successor class).

There is no gainsaying the government’s premise. The future is unpredictable. Existing nuclear threats, such as they are, may intensify. New nuclear threats may emerge. One day we might no longer be able to look to the United States to deter common adversaries.

But the government is wrong to assume that in future only nuclear weapons will be able to provide adequate insurance.

The Future Operating Environment 2035 highlights the accelerating pace at which military technology is evolving. In doing so it suggests that by 2030 non-nuclear weapon systems will be able to serve as strategic deterrents.

Cyber-weapons may offer one such non-nuclear option: “Cyber capabilities will be integrated into overall targeting processes, contributing to a broad-based deterrent posture…. Cyber activity may offer a credible way to provide deterrent effect that complies with the principle of distinction, perhaps by threatening a state’s critical infrastructure.”

Increasingly fast, accurate, and maneuverable delivery vehicles and increasingly destructive conventional explosives may lead to the emergence of other non-nuclear options.

Instead of investing tens of billions in submarines that may well be increasingly vulnerable to counter-measures by the time they enter into service, the government should be exploring alternative sources of insurance against an uncertain future.

It should also be exploiting its membership in the P5—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who are also the five Nuclear Weapon States recognized by parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—to persuade the US, France, Russia, and China that the time has come to look for a source of strategic stability that does not threaten billions of non-combatants.

Nuclear weapons have been a useful promoter of strategic stability for several decades. They have played their part in keeping the peace between the major powers. But technological advances are starting to permit the major powers to contemplate alternative sources of stability. The time has come for the P5 to launch a collective study.

Britain’s Global Standing

The government may believe that the deployment of nuclear weapons is essential to UK prestige, to our standing in the world.

The US defense secretary fed that conceit when he spoke to the BBC in February: “[Britain’s nuclear weapons helps Britain continue to play that outsized role on the global stage that it does because of its moral standing and its historical standing.”

But Secretary Carter’s choice of words revealed a more effective basis for global prestige in the 21st century than military power: moral standing.

The 185 states that have pledged, as parties to the NPT, never to acquire nuclear weapons are not impressed by our possession of nuclear weapons. On the contrary, they resent the fact that we cling to a double standard: our possession of nuclear weapons is good, their possession of nuclear weapons would be bad. They think it high time that we honored our part of the NPT bargain struck in 1968 and did away with our nuclear weapons.

The way for us to win their esteem—if we care about our global prestige—is to cease deploying nuclear weapons once the Vanguard submarines reach the end of their operational lives and, meanwhile, display moral conviction by leading a P5 search for a less destructive source of strategic stability.

Photo of Trident Nuclear Submarine HMS Victorious courtesy of Defence Images via Flickr.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. No sane person would use nuclear weapons. No deterrent would prevent an insane person from doing so. We will all be safer when there are less (or no) nuclear weapons in the world.

  2. Thank you for this enlightened article. I listened to most of the debates in the House of Commons. There were some strong arguments on both sides. One strong argument for keeping our nuclear weapons is that we already possess them and they have kept us safe against nuclear attacks so far. The problem with this argument is that this gamble will succeed until it fails and once it fails it is the end of the road. Nuclear weapons are not just like any other weapons. They can put an end to the entire human civilization. If we do not destroy them they will definitely destroy us. Reading about the history of the times that nuclear bombs were almost unleashed due to mistakes, is enough to make the blood run cold.
    The most chilling moment in the debate came when an MP asked the prime minister if she would be prepared to press the button that would kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Mrs. May gave a strong affirmative response. All this makes us realize that the use of nuclear weapons is the final desperate act before the Armageddon.
    The initial cost of renewing the nuclear deterrent is about £40b ($53b), but the running cost of the system over the next 30 years is estimated at between £175-205b. The Chilcott report blamed the shortage of military equipment for what it called a “humiliating defeat” in Iraq. The amount that is to be spent on the nuclear deterrent will go a long way in strengthening Britain’s conventional forces.
    I don’t believe that Britain should give up her nuclear weapons on a unilateral basis, but I wish the British government would use her nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip to persuade other nuclear powers to eliminate or cut their nuclear arsenals and also to establish a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. That would keep us safer than any number of nuclear weapons. Britain’s “historical standing” can be put to good use by pushing for such an alternative.

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