Seventy Six Words – UK Nuclear Policy Shifts in the Integrated Review of March 2021
The Integrated Review
In just 76 words highlighted below across three statements in the nuclear deterrent section of the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy“Global Britain in a competitive age. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, UK Govt CP403, March 2021 … Continue reading (IR), the UK government reversed its policy of gradual reduction of the variety, number and salience of its nuclear weapons in place through successive governments since the end of the Cold War. While I judge that the IR is an exemplar in cross-government analysis of the complexities of 21st century geopolitics and national reactions to them, it is on these 76 out of around 44 thousand I shall concentrate. Readers may be aware of the previous positions I held in UK MoD in this area. I have been meticulous in basing this paper on open-source information and any extrapolation, speculation or deduction within are from that. No-one should infer that anything in this paper is drawn from or relies on classified knowledge.
Much of the subsequent analysis and headlines have focused on the announcement that the decrease in nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling (from 225 to 180) announced in 2010, would be reversed with an ultimate new cap of 260 warheads. This announcement needs analysis, however, across the scope of its three significant policy shifts:
The first was the ceiling rise in the overall nuclear stockpile:
“However, in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats, this is no longer possible, and the UK will move to an overall nuclear weapon stockpile of no more than 260 warheads.”
The second was the re-drawing of a veil of secrecy under that ceiling, made clear and public in 2007 and reduced in 2010, about the number of weapons in the stockpile deployed at any one time (in effect the day-to-day usable arsenal of the UK). Although the veil was badged as ambiguity, in truth it is more a veil of secrecy allowing any subsequent shifts in policy to be made without publicity:
“Given the changing security and technological environment, we will extend this long-standing policy of deliberate ambiguity and no longer give public figures for our operational stockpile, deployed warhead or deployed missile numbers.”
The third, and in my judgement arguably the most significant was the further move away from any concept of sole purpose for nuclear weapons. This was a broadening of the caveats to the UK’s NSAs (Negative Security Assurances) expanding the number and type of future potential threats against which the UK would consider deterred by its nuclear arsenal, and therefore to which the UK indicates the likelihood of a nuclear response:
“The UK will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 1968 (NPT). This assurance does not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations. However, we reserve the right to review this assurance if the future threat of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological capabilities, or emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact, makes it necessary.”
The title asks a simple question. Were the nuclear weapon policy announcements in the IR a result of hubris, hypocrisy or as a hedge? In common with most matters surrounding nuclear weapons policy, the answer is never simple enough for a headline and in truth it is almost certainly a mix of all three.
There is no doubt in my mind that nationalistic hubris, a key strand in this government’s, and the Prime Minister’s, DNA would have driven the hawkish result from the many options which the deliberations of the decidedly hubris-free joint MoD-FCDO expert group undoubtedly presented during the gestation of the review. From the departure from the EU, through the COVID pandemic and its vaccine programme and throughout the rest of the IR itself exceptionalist nationalism shines through the responses and the rhetoric.
Such sentiment, mixed with the market-driven theories which drove much of the pandemic response, are likely to have seen the previous policies as insufficient “value for money”, as for the purposes of following the commitments in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), they deliberately underused both the capacities of the submarines and their TRIDENT missiles. Thus a combination of nationalistic “got it, so flaunt it” and monetaristic “bang for the buck” from the top is likely to have steered the conclusions to those announced.
It is hard for the five recognised NWS within the NPT to evade charges of hypocrisy; the NPT is at its heart a hypocritical Treaty because that was the only solution likely to achieve the signatures of 3 of the then 5 nuclear powers at its inception and the last two in the 1990s. That hypocrisy is simple: the Treaty requires an end to nuclear weapons ownership, but it will allow those in possession to simultaneously hold yet declare support for that end, in return for an unenforceable promise that they won’t hold them forever.
The best mark, therefore, of relative respect within the NPT that the recognised NWS seek whilst retaining their weapons is that of “least hypocritical”. In many respects, therefore, and for some time now the UK has held that title as a result of its genuine reductions and leading pursuit of the NPT’s objectives. It has allowed the UK to rightly gain approval for its place in the vanguard of the 5 NWS in their pursuit of Article 6 by the repetition of the reasons for being the title holder, which are repeated in the IR:
“The UK has taken a consistent and leading approach to nuclear disarmament. The UK possesses the smallest stockpile of any of the nuclear weapon states recognised by the NPT. We are alone amongst those states in only operating a single nuclear weapon system.”
The uplifted ceiling of 260 might allow the UK to maintain the factual part of this statementThe US Government estimates that the Chinese arsenal is in the “low 200s” so in theory the UK could overtake the more conservative estimates of China’s arsenal if it reaches the new ceiling … Continue reading. There is no doubt, however, that in reversing the downward trend of the last 30 years, widening the range of non-nuclear threats against which it might consider a nuclear response, and drawing a veil of secrecy once more (after at least a decade’s complete openness) over the details of the disposition of warheads beneath the ceiling figure the UK’s “hypocrisy meter” in the NPT has increased.
I don’t consider any of the IR’s announcements are driven by deliberate hypocrisy anywhere in Whitehall, but the effect is the same and undoubtedly the job of the UK’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Aidan Liddle, has been made significantly more challenging this week.
Ambassador Liddle is right in the facts within his blog“The Integrated Review and Disarmament” FCDO blog, Aidan Liddle, 19 Mar 2021 https://blogs.fcdo.gov.uk/aidanliddle/2021/03/19/disarmament-blog-the-integrated-review-and-disarmament/ announcing the IR, but he recognises that the NPT is as much about perception as it is about fact and the perception of most states party to the Treaty is likely to be hostile: that the IR represents a retrograde movement by the UK.
The last rationale I offered for the changes in the IR was as a hedge against increasing risk and future change. Hedge is a broad term used across the range of nuclear capability and policy issues. In this paper I use it to indicate an additional reserve of weapons to allow for unknowns and unpredictabilities. The term is not pejorative in itself; even the minimum deterrent announced in 2010 had a form of hedge: the 60 warheads in the stockpile above the declared deployed maximum of 120. This margin allowed for maintenance, management and assurance that the 120 were always available to support Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD). What I will analyse are indicators in the IR as to why that hedge is now expanding.
Undoubtedly, the first conclusion an observer should draw from the IR is that the UK had genuinely pursued a minimum deterrent up to and including its announcements in 2010 and subsequent actions in the years immediately following. If it had left a hidden hedge, it would have been unlikely to have seen it necessary to publicly reverse its positions just a decade later. It is likely that it considers that it still maintains a minimum, but the reasons why that might be the case deserve analysis.
While I do not agree with all of the conclusions which can be deduced or inferred from the wording in the IR, it is clear that the perceived need for a hedge provided the bulk impetus for a change which accommodated the hubris and in turn increased the level of hypocrisy. That the perceived need was deemed such that the UK was prepared to suffer the opprobrium and negative headlines both in the media and diplomatically should not be dismissed and it is vital that the reasons are examined as far as they can be and the right conclusions drawn.
It is simplistic, however, to consider a hedge as a response to a single factor. In the 2007 White Paper the UK declared:
“We need to make a judgement on the minimum destructive capability necessary to provide an effective deterrent posture. This judgement requires an assessment of the decision-making processes of future potential aggressors, and an analysis of the effectiveness of the defensive measures that they might employ.”The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, Cm6994, Dec 2006
The reviews of 2010 and 2015 which initiated and confirmed the reductions from the 48 deployed weapons announced in 2007 no longer included any rationale for scale beyond generalities. In contrast, the statements made after the IR was published by the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace to the BBCAndrew Marr Show, BBC 1, 21 Mar 21 lifted the veil on some of them, although as they were made in a live interview they do not flow as a published statement might:
“the deterrent must remain credible … we have seen Russia invest strongly in ballistic missile defence (BMD), they have planned and deployed new capabilities .. we deploy enough (warheads) to make sure it is credible .. if that takes an increase of warheads to do that … study … how warheads work and how they re-enter the atmosphere ..make sure they are not vulnerable to BMD”
What was the full range of factors in the IR may never rightly be known outside the highly classified domains of government nuclear policy, but some deductions can be made from the words made public.
From the wording of the IR and these statements, there seem logically to be three candidate streams of risk for which a hedge could be seen as necessary; it is likely all three are pertinent in the UK’s deliberations:
- A desire to hedge overall stockpile numbers against a broad tapestry of increasing risk; or
- Within that, an internal recognition that any deterrence risks resulting from the ceilings announced in 2010 are no longer supportable, leading to either actual deployed warhead changes or wiggle room for that in the future; or
- A need for a larger stockpile to manage availability risks in the transition to a replacement warhead type forecast in the IR.
The third rationale is entirely understandable and if it were the sole reason there would be no need for the secrecy announced in the IR as no change to any deployed weapons would be necessary. It is clear, however, that the UK has judged it needs to counter the increased risks attendant to two threats.
The first of these is the increase in less than strategic weapons by potential adversaries. While the UK acknowledged in 2007 the existence of a lower yield variant of the warheads mounted in TRIDENT, subsequent reductions emphasised the strategic nature of the UK’s arsenal. The IR language implies that the UK has aligned its policy far more closely to US policy, and thus by extension to the collective policy of the NATO alliance.
The second is an increase in the range of non-nuclear threats with “comparable impact” to those of nuclear weapons. Primarily this is aimed at cyber warfare, high end conventional weapons, including hypersonic missiles and the addition of AI and machine learning to military systems. It remains extremely challenging to envisage a non-nuclear effect which delivers “comparable impact” to the instantaneous combination of destructive power, psychological shock and long lasting after-effects of a nuclear detonation, but in the IR the UK has added these to the previous chemical and biological WMD caveats in her Negative Security Assurances (NSAs). In doing so it mirrors similar statements in President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2018. The UK states that, if these threats become manifest, they would counter them with its nuclear arsenal.
In the judgement of many such a response is entirely inappropriate for these threats, and in fact the more imminent dangers posed by these novel technologies is not their own capacity for damage but their entanglement and likely escalation acceleration of nuclear decision making. Setting these aside, however, it could be argued that the IR commits the UK to no change now. It could be argued that these caveats only come into force when the threat is manifest. I counter that this is, however, not assured. Neither the US nor the UK could be certain of the time available to make changes when such capabilities became clear and the Defence Secretary indicated the likelihood of a need for an increase in deployed warheads.
It takes time to make changes to SSBN warhead loads. The 2010 deployed reductions were announced on 19 October 2010. On 29 June 2011, Liam Fox, then Defence Secretary, announced that the first SSBN was carrying the new load and that the other two operational SSBN would complete the changes “within this Parliament” (i.e. by May 2015). Such a four and a half year change period is geologic in comparison to the pace of new technologies; it is possible therefore that, however the caveat is worded, any changes deemed necessary may soon be underway.
It is also logical that a response to these emerging threats will drive a deployed ability to respond to these “lesser” threats while simultaneously retaining sufficient capacity to deter those more strategic and enduring. Coupled with the IR’s reassertion that the UK will maintain CASD – that is resting all nuclear responses inherent in their deterrent posture in the single on-patrol SSBN – it is hard to evade a conclusion that the deployed warhead count will ultimately increase, as hinted at by the Defence Secretary. It may not be right away, but the parallel secrecy on the previously openness on deployed numbers will mean that adversaries will have to assume early changes and react accordingly – the IR will have raised the temperature in nuclear geopolitics.
An increase to react to a changed strategic threat or a change in system effectiveness would be quite proper – there is no point fielding a deterrent if it does not remain credible and a credible strategic deterrent currently remains necessary. Any increase in reaction to new tasking for the deterrent would be more open to challenge.
As I argued in an earlier paper,“The Dangerous Illogic of Twenty-First-Century Deterrence Through Planning for Nuclear Warfighting”, Gower, CEIP, 6 Mar 2018, … Continue reading the proper response to the first threat is to separate even further the high end of conventional crisis and conflict and any nuclear weapon use, reserving a strategic response to ANY nuclear weapon use. This maintains the exceptionality of nuclear weapons and concentrates nuclear deterrence on the first use, at ANY level through unacceptable consequences. The rise in “dual capable weapons and deployed nuclear cruise missiles are significant issues. Any form of a return to the UKs’ short-lived and unsound concept of Sub-Strategic Trident (SST) would add to the growing risk here. The dual myths of “need like to deter like ” and “escalation can be controlled” are myths which we can ill afford to test in the crucible of future crisis and conflict.
A logical response to the second is to seek countermeasures to the threats these technologies could pose by international agreement, proper oversight and management or deterrence from within the same sphere and – if the threats they pose begin to entangle with nuclear weapons – seek to remove the weapons, systems and mindsets which are most at risk of this entanglement. If nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as a panacea response to new threats then they will never disappear and broader proliferation is assured.
I am sure those in Whitehall today will argue that nothing in the IR directly indicates an increase in deployed weapons and that the response to new threats is rhetorical and contingent on future deterioration. The shortfall with this argument, even if true, is that the restoration of secrecy means that analysts from adversaries, allies and those in neither camp are forced to assume an increase to match this rhetoric and react accordingly.
An increased or more varied nuclear response to these threats coupled with deeper and broader ambiguity also increases the risks of misinterpretation and miscalculation in crisis and conflict. It is widely acknowledged that misinterpretation and miscalculation is a much more trenchant threat than the out of the blue strategic strike fears during the bulk of the Cold War.
Both of these threats are recognised and identified by those advocating risk reduction by the nuclear armed states. None of their advocated measures include increasing nuclear capacity or allocation to these threats.
It would be easy to conclude that these changes in policy were largely as a result of the gung-ho nationalistic hubris which has been a hallmark of the public and private-made-public utterances of the UK’s current Prime Minister and most of his Ministers. Indeed much of the headline responses of the press have majored on this theme. The UK will undoubtedly receive an increase in the level of accusations of hypocrisy as a result, both generally and within the corridors of discussion of the NPT. The next NPT Review Conference will undoubtedly be more challenging for Ambassador Liddle and his team than even it was looking before the IR was published.
I worked in these areas in Whitehall for over six years. Whatever transitory overlay of hubris and even hypocrisy from the Government of the day, in the careful analysis and judgements made in the formulation of nuclear policy in the departments concerned I remain certain that hubris and hypocrisy had and have no place. Apart from my own experience however, the fact that the last review left no hidden hedge, and (while I have disagreed with the conclusions drawn) that the review rightly identifies the new threats from other nuclear-armed states and entangling new technologies all support that this is NOT about hubris and hypocrisy.
Without doubt, therefore, the overwhelming UK rationale for the more hawkish nuclear policy announced is as a hedge against increased risk, both for the globally obvious and probably also for internal programmatic reasons. While the internal reasons are matters for the UK, the global risk increase it acknowledges is demonstrably true and demanding of response.
In the paper earlier referred, I argued fundamentally against some of the reactions to these risks: the rise in “nuclear warfighting capability” is not best countered by growing a separate response within your nuclear capability and the UK is wrong to adopt what I term the ”strategic laziness” invoked by other nuclear powers that the way to counter challenging new technologies is to increasingly see a nuclear response as the panacea of deterrence, however implicitly deferred in an NSA.
Yet even with these disagreements it would be entirely wrong to dismiss the risk concerns which are the undoubted engine of these changes. That the United Kingdom, until 16 March 2021 the recent leader among the NWS in pursuit of the NPT disarmament goals, should accept the significant opprobrium the IR has evoked is significant. It should be seen as the “canary in the mine” for even those who support the canards that increasing the numbers and variety of less than strategic nuclear weapons and broadening the range of threats against which nuclear weapons are essential contributors to strategic stability. The IR has unfortunately added the UK to that list.
There is no shortage of suggested actions for the NWS to reduce risk in the nuclear weapon domain. Some are included in the 64-point action plan agreed in the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Many of the more effective ones are the product of much work by NGOs and governments across the world in the decade since the Action Plan was agreed.
The UK stated in the IR that it:
“will champion strategic risk reduction and seek to create dialogue among states possessing nuclear weapons, and between states possessing nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapon states, to increase understanding and reduce the risk of misinterpretation and miscalculation.”
And yet, how striking is it that while the UK is prepared to undergo broad international opprobrium because the situation has grown so much worse, the IR offers so very little about how to change the situation for the better except to work more closely with Allies, broaden the caveats which weaken the counterproliferation effect of the NSAs, lift the warhead ceiling and increase secrecy and ambiguity.
These are all reactive, defensive measures, some of which will exacerbate tensions. What is offered on the proactive side of the ledger is a thin gruel: a continuation of activities in which the UK has already been engaged plus championing strategic risk reduction and seeking to create dialogue, both of which the uplift in ceiling will make it harder for the UK government to pursue with even its former credibility.
The IR is long on being a force for good, putting diplomacy at the heart of our international efforts, being a strong soft power and shaping the international order. Yet so little of all this seems applied to the factors forcing the UK to change nuclear direction after 30 years of hopeful travel at the vanguard of the P5. I don’t doubt the good faith of the Whitehall machine in continuing to strive, but there’s no evidence of political will on NPT article 6 to match the IR’s rhetoric elsewhere.
So what could the UK do to redress the negative responses to the policy shifts in the IR? Absent walking back on them specifically, which is unlikely, I suggest three areas where further UK activity would be beneficial:
- Reconsider the decision to reimpose secrecy, badged as ambiguity, on the number of operational warheads deployed. Under this veil, adversaries will have to assume the worst case and react accordingly. Far from improving stability, such “ambiguity” actively harms it;
- Make clear that, while noting the increase in less-than-strategic weapons and the need, therefore to reconsider its strategic capability in response, the UK will not follow suit. In particular make a commitment not to include a UK equivalent of the US LYD5 very low yield warhead for TRIDENT in any future UK doctrine, nor reintroduce the SST concept;
- Make it clear that it sees the additional NSA caveats to be temporary and lead close allies and internationally on non-nuclear responses and solutions to the non-nuclear threats it identifies. This would include a commitment to removing all NSA caveats and moving both the UK and her allies closer to a doctrine of sole purpose when resultantly possible.
Without some action along the lines of those proposed in addition to the commitment in the IR, the UK is not only the canary in the mine but it is in danger of being a canary falling ominously silent, sadly perhaps through self-imposed laryngitis.
Rear Admiral John Gower, CB OBE is a former Assistant Chief of Defence Staff for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological in the UK’s Ministry of Defence. For most of the years 2006 to 2014 he was the lead military officer responsible for advice on nuclear policy and operations within the MOD and to the relevant Cabinet Office committees. He was involved closely in the reviews of deterrence policy announced in 2007, 2010 and 2013. He is now an independent consultant on nuclear weapons policy and risk reduction issues. The author recognises the assistance of BASIC in publishing this report, although the views in it are entirely his own and – clearly – do not reflect the position of the UK or any other government or NGO; they are, however, informed by his time involved in these issues in Whitehall.
|“Global Britain in a competitive age. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, UK Govt CP403, March 2021 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/969402/The_Integrated_Review_of_Security__Defence__Development_and_Foreign_Policy.pdf
|The US Government estimates that the Chinese arsenal is in the “low 200s” so in theory the UK could overtake the more conservative estimates of China’s arsenal if it reaches the new ceiling without a response from China.
|“The Integrated Review and Disarmament” FCDO blog, Aidan Liddle, 19 Mar 2021 https://blogs.fcdo.gov.uk/aidanliddle/2021/03/19/disarmament-blog-the-integrated-review-and-disarmament/
|The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, Cm6994, Dec 2006
|Andrew Marr Show, BBC 1, 21 Mar 21
|“The Dangerous Illogic of Twenty-First-Century Deterrence Through Planning for Nuclear Warfighting”, Gower, CEIP, 6 Mar 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/03/06/dangerous-illogic-of-twenty-first-century-deterrence-through-planning-for-nuclear-warfighting-pub-75717