Should the US’ British Ally Retain Nuclear Weapons?

by Peter Jenkins

Last week an independent, cross-party commission of inquiry into UK nuclear weapons policy issued its report.

The commission (comprising three politicians, two diplomats, one field marshal and two academics) reviewed the arguments for and against the UK retaining nuclear weapons. They came, somewhat hesitantly, to the conclusion that on balance a UK strategic nuclear deterrent should be retained.

LobeLog readers may be most interested in the commission’s review of the global threat environment, which is based on a distinction between threats that are an argument for retaining a nuclear deterrent and threats that are not.

That review opens with an endorsement for the British government’s view that threats are a product of both capability and intent: “The Commission [agrees] that currently no state has both the intent to threaten our vital interests and the capability to do so with nuclear weapons.”

This reminder of the compound nature of nuclear threats is relevant to the US debate on Iran’s nuclear activities — relevant, indeed, to the negotiations that are ongoing in Vienna. A fixation on Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities seems to blind some to the fact that there is still no sign that Iran’s leaders intend to build and use nuclear weapons to threaten vital US interests.

The commission’s view is that an Iranian nuclear threat has yet to emerge and (by implication) is not bound to do so: “Any further development of a nuclear programme in Iran, were the current developments to take a turn for the worse, is not a reason on its own for Britain to retain a nuclear deterrent.”

The commission is equally sanguine about the potential for the four nuclear–armed states (Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) to pose a threat that requires the retention of a nuclear deterrent. The commission is confident that neither India nor Pakistan will ever want to target the UK. They consider the UK’s strategic footprint in the Far East too small (what a change over the last 100 years!) for North Korea’s nuclear weapons to pose a substantial threat to the UK. Of Israel they write: “Israel’s nuclear arsenal does present a major challenge to regional arms control in the Middle East and to universalisation of the NPT, and as such is a difficult and critical obstacle to realising the essential global non-proliferation agenda. But it is no direct threat to the UK.”

These conclusions, together with the belief that strategic confrontation with China is highly unlikely, leave the commission contemplating only one possible threat as an argument for retention. In the commission’s view, recent events show that Russia is willing “to use the threat of military force…to shape the internal affairs of a sovereign country to conform to its desires.” This prompts the commission to the conclusion that NATO (and, by implication, Britain) should maintain a capacity to deter Russia from considering nuclear blackmail in pursuit of political objectives.

Following are three other arguments for retention, in the commission’s opinion:

  • while the US Trident program dwarfs the British one, there would be a technical, scientific and economic impact on the US were the UK to pull out, and the US might resent that;
  • the UK is explicitly committed to contributing to NATO security through its nuclear forces;
  • the pursuit of a multilateral nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agenda is crucial to strengthening UK security; possession of nuclear forces allows the UK to retain influence over the other Nuclear Weapon States, and to encourage them to move towards the shared US/UK vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

And here are four arguments that the commission dismisses:

  • the UK’s international status would suffer were it to give up nuclear weapons;
  • nuclear weapons can deter attacks by non-state actors, or chemical and biological weapon use by hostile states;
  • nuclear weapons are needed as a general insurance against an uncertain future;
  • nuclear weapons can serve as a “shield” for UK conventional forces to intervene out-of-area.

In reviewing industrial and budgetary considerations, the commission is more tentative. They recognize that several British communities have been dependent on the UK submarine industry for their viability, but they believe it would be wrong to allow this to be a decisive influence on a national security question. They find that capital expenditure on the Trident program, during the years when replacement submarines are being procured, will consume a quarter of the Defense Ministry’s capital projects budget, but they characterize this cost as “not prohibitive given the possible implications were the UK in future to face a nuclear-armed state.”

This last sentence suggests one flaw in the report. Though the commission is opposed to seeing a nuclear deterrent as insurance against uncertainty, their central argument can be reduced, irreverently, to: “We don’t really need it now, but it could come in handy one day.” Of course, this may be fitting: a majority of Britons would probably agree.

Photo: The HMS Victorious is the second Vanguard-class submarine of the Royal Navy. Victorious carries the Trident ballistic missile, the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

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. “The shared vision by the U.S./U.K. of a world free of Nuclear weapons”. Considering all the time that has passed since the first “Bombs”, what is the rational expectation such might come to fruition? As for the idea that Russia being the “big bad wolf”, that old saying about “people who live in glass houses, shouldn’t throw rocks at others”, seems to be working. Of course, if one is pushed up against a wall with no way of escape, well, who knows? Consider what the present shape of the world would be today if only the U.S./U.K. had the “bomb”?

  2. I am a UK national who does not agree with spending $100 billion on replacing the current Trident system.
    If the latest way overdue delivery of an aircraft carrier – without aircraft – costing more than double the original estimates is anything to go by, the eventual cost could well be much higher.
    What is ludicrous about this system is that it is not independent.
    It relies upon US navigation satellites for the missiles to reach their targets.
    If the US opposes use of the weapon system it cannot be used independently by the British.
    What is the point of that?
    A well known sayng is that military – and political – leaders end up fighting the last war.
    The situation today is utterly transformed.
    The Iraq regime – what is left of it – has apparently just informed the UN that Islamic State operatives have acquired 40 kilograms of nuclear material from Mosul University.
    The future actors we need to worry about are not state actors but non-state actors.
    How will a Trident replacement system deter them?

  3. Gosh John, if what you say about IS acquiring 40 Kilos of Nuclear material from the Mosul University, then IMHO, Israel should be careful in their treatment of the Palestinians, especially in the Gaza, as well as the West Bank/Jerusalem, seeing that rockets able to hit anywhere in Israel today are a reality. I don’t think the “Iron Dome” defense will suffice, as we’ve already seen. And the ones that got through that landed in the street[s], well, it only takes one, doesn’t it? Netanyahoo might rue the day it happens, putting the civilian population at risk so he could be the big man on campus.

  4. If containment and defense is a good reason for nucleare arsenal then such reasoning could be true for any country,including Iran which is openly threatened by Irael and theUS.
    These are Cold War arguments and should be shelved with the Cold War files.The only country that made use of nuclear bomb irresponsibly and caused a historical disaster was the US.Iran, though attacked with chemical weapons by Iraq, did not retaliate out of moral responsibility,and this is a better record than the US& it’s allies.
    Nuclear weapons should be dismantled without any excuse,some of which are childish.Super powers want to keep the nuclear weapons to bully other nations and keep their supremacy and power of negotiation ,just like their dominance over the UN ,which is now just a chess club for a few big powers.
    You,Mr.Peter Jenkins ,with the intellect and experience you poses, should be an advocate of disarmament in general not keeping nuclear weapon. Human civilization should move towards Global Union(single currency,removal of borders,utilization of natural resources for commen human benefit,….) and meritocracy,whoever the meritorious individuals could be.Territorial,religious,racial,cultural and other types of small minded barriers should be gradually relaxed and eventually removed.The national armies of most countries are serving just as safeguard for their dictatorial national rulers.Shouldn’t arms supplies to such countries be stopped and such national armies and even the so called national sovereignty be abolished and such countries brought under a common civilised government ?We now know that the environmental problems are global and cannot be confined to a limited area.It is the same with other problem; endemic deseases,poverty,unemployment and economic migration,wars between countries, ethnic genocide, etc.
    At this stage of human development and civilization walking backwards and thinking narrow is not becoming ,specially for advanced countries and in particular for advanced individuals.
    The advanced powerful nations must take the first steps to creat a global union of man, environment ,societies,economies and the rest.
    Entrepreneur , small or big are motivated by profit and even greed which a good thing for Vigorous economic activity in all human societies.If left on their own they would go for quickest,easiest and highest profit,in which case they might damage the environment or waste natural resources and exploit people. But if regulated and overseen by democratic public institutions they can bring great benefit to humanity and themselves.Not any one who may have access to money and other facilities can become an enterepeneur.They are special breed of human beings! but have to be managed or else they will damage themselves and others.
    To close,sir,we must look ahead, open our guards little by little and take human civilization forward .

  5. Since I’m not in favor of any nukes, I vote let’s get rid of all of them from any country and ban all other countries from having the infrastructure to produce them.

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