A Hawkish Vision of British nuclear disarmament

The conversation about the United Kingdom giving up its nuclear arsenal has been led by pacifists, and they have not been very successful. A more Hawkish approach to the subject may prove more palatable to the British public. As Jeremy Corbyn found out during the 2017 General Election, being against nuclear weapons is seen as a sign of weakness. I intend to set out by removing the Nuclear option; Britain can retain all of the benefits of the Nuclear umbrella while being free to spend more on its conventional forces. 

The UK nuclear deterrent consists of four Vanguard-class submarines armed with Trident Missiles. The current fleet of submarines came into service in the 1990s, with the youngest of the fleet, Vengeance, being commissioned in 1999. In 2016 Parliament voted to replace the current generation of submarines with the new Dreadnought class, estimated to cost £31 billion in 2015. Assessing the project’s actual cost is highly complicated. Still, seeing as the Government set aside an additional £10 billion at ordering the replacement, the project is expected to run over budget. For comparison, the two Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carriers had a cost of £6.2 billion.

The Government’s policy on the use of nuclear weapons is as follows;

‘The purpose of nuclear deterrence is to preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression. Potential aggressors know that the costs of attacking the UK, or our NATO allies, could far outweigh any benefit they could hope to achieve. This deters states from using their nuclear weapons against us or carrying out the most extreme threats to our national security.

It is wrong to say that the UK’s nuclear deterrent is never used. The reality is that it protects us every hour of every day. By providing a credible and effective response option to extreme aggression, our nuclear deterrent reduces the likelihood of such an attack taking place.’  

The point about protecting the UK and Nato allies from nuclear weapons is moot; the UK would receive all the benefits of Nuclear deterrence from the US arsenal, as do all other NATO members. Portugal is not in a state of constant dread of nuclear attack due to a lack of nuclear weapons; if anything having nuclear capabilities puts a nation higher up the list of targets in a worst-case scenario. The second of protecting against “extreme threats to our national security” is far more interesting and certainly could have more merit. The UK National Security council currently considers the following as the highest priority threats;

  • A major accident or natural disaster 
  • An attack on UK cyberspace 
  • International terrorism 
  • An international military crisis between states 

Baring the plot of the film Armageddon, there seems to be little role for nuclear weapons in the disaster relief role, whereas a larger conventional military could play a role. The UK military has often played a key role in disaster relief, including during the Coronavirus Pandemic. An attack of UK cyberspace also lacks an appropriate nuclear response, and in a worst-case scenario, the nuclear infrastructure of the UK could become a target of a cyberattack. Nuclear weapons do not deter terrorism; this was made abundantly clear in the 21st century; in fact, nuclear facilities could be targets for terrorist attacks. Thus, nuclear weapons are useless and even a liability for three of the four highest priority threats. Perhaps nukes will hold their own in preventing military conflict? Nuclear weapons are supposed to prevent conventional wars, and this is undoubtedly the role they played in keeping the Cold War from heating up. A reason for the UK’s nuclear force is to dissuade conventional military action against the United Kingdom. History has shown this not to be the case. The Falklands war shows that despite a nuclear deterrent, a hostile power invaded sovereign British territory. Nuclear weapons did not function as a deterrent in this case, but rather the reduced capabilities of Britain’s conventional forces led Argentina to believe the British would be unable or unwilling to respond. That is not to say that the use of nuclear weapons would have been justified in this instance; their use would be massively out of proportion. Even if the British isles themselves were invaded, I struggle to see nuclear weapons being used. 

Some believe being part of the Nuclear club grants the UK more prestige and influence as a world power, and while this may be true to an extent, I believe a more capable conventional military would also have the same result. The problem is that despite the Government’s claim that Trident is an “independent nuclear deterrent”, the whole program is highly reliant on the United States, with most of the warheads being stored in the US rather than the UK. While Trident requires the Prime Minister’s approval to be launched, this would never be done without the consent of the US. The only situation in which the UK’s nuclear forces would be used independently is if the entire US nuclear capability was wiped out. Any force capable enough to do that would be more than able to repeat it against the UK. I would argue that there is little prestige in standing as the backup for the American nuclear deterrent. If Britain’s nuclear budget were instead spent on conventional forces, it would allow Britain to have a more significant global presence in terms of power projection and offer more humanitarian support across the globe. For the cost of the Trident replacement, the UK could easily double its ocean-going service fleet. Even a single additional ship would enhance Britain’s global presence in a time where it is desperately searching for relevance. This vision of nuclear disarmament would alleviate fears of Britain becoming weaker while still giving the traditional disarmament campaigners their desired result.

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