Is UK disarmament quite so irrelevant?

The very quiet failure of this year’s Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee to agree any final document and the daunting challenge of the treaty Review Conference next year mean frustration is growing about the pace of progress by the nuclear-weapons states to disarm—so slow it feels like we are going backward.

Austria has announced that it will host the next conference on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons in mid-December—many states had been hoping this process would translate into pressure on the nuclear-weapons states to speed up but so far there is little sign of it. In New York earlier this month the Arab League threatened to reassess the 1995 decision to extend the treaty indefinitely, although quite how this could be done remained a mystery. The Marshall Islands, site of 67 atmospheric tests between 1946 and 1958, have taken the nuclear-weapons states to the International Court of Justice over their failure to implement their commitment to negotiate disarmament, as article VI of the treaty requires, but this seems unlikely to go far either.

It may appear to some that the only real leverage states have, beyond fiery speeches and symbolic protests at NPT meetings, is to block non-proliferation measures or threaten exit from the treaty. The danger is that states will over time simply lose heart in the project and could come to consider that their security is best assured through other means.

Major responsibility

The UK is one of the five nuclear-weapons states and bears a major responsibility for this very worrying situation. Its attempts to convince fellow nuclear-weapons states to disarm—calling for a world free of nuclear weapons and setting up the ‘P5 process’—have failed. Should it not now consider independent moves? To insist that any initiative depends on multilateral action by all five states (not to mention those nuclear-armed states outside the treaty) could be seen as hiding behind the group.

A golden opportunity is offered by the final decision, slated for 2016, on whether to begin construction of the next generation of strategic ballistic-missile submarines to carry the UK’s nuclear missiles, replacing the current Trident system. Between then and now, in May next year, coinciding with the NPT Review Conference, there will be a Westminster election.

The debates of the 1980s still scar Labour politicians and cast a long shadow over any possible hint at further steps down the nuclear ladder: the Conservatives successfully campaigned in the 1983 general election that Labour’s then unilateralist stance would leave the UK ‘defenceless’. Yet every reduction made by successive governments since has been unilateral. At the end of the cold war the UK had around 400 warheads, deployed in Polaris submarines and on various tactical platforms. By 1998 it became the only nuclear-weapons state to consolidate all its warheads on one platform, the fleet of Trident submarines, and today has a plan to come down to 120 operationally-available warheads with no more than 40 on each submarine in the near future.

Were these reductions made to save the NPT? Absolutely not. British leaders recognised that, while they remained committed to maintaining a ‘credible, independent, minimum nuclear deterrent’, the end of the cold war and developments in attitudes towards nuclear weapons meant their number could come down (with benefits for increasingly stretched budgets) without a change of strategy.

Profound scepticism

There is a widely-held view that these reductions have not made a jot of difference to anyone else—that they have not encouraged other nuclear-weapons states to disarm and have not prevented some states from considering their own nuclear-weapons programmes. This belief, reflecting profound skepticism as to the efficacy of arms reductions, implies that any decision to go further down the ladder—or, heaven forbid, get rid of the nuclear arsenal entirely—would harm UK security and have no positive global impact. Some might even say it would destabilise relations and encourage other states, emboldened by Britain’s supposed weakness, to fill the gap. Better then not to rock the boat.

Yet if the unilateral decisions already made by the UK had been in response to exogenous changes in the threat environment, irrespective of the UK’s international commitments, why should non-nuclear-weapons states express gratitude or count them as a meaningful indication of intent to realise treaty obligations? Such moves might buy time but not satisfaction.

These decisions did not affect Britain’s practical commitment indefinitely to retain its nuclear deterrent but rather sized it to the new reality of no strategic military threat, explicitly recognised in successive policy documents. This only underlines the absence of intent to consider full disarmament as envisaged by article VI.

The doctrine of “continuous at-sea deterrence” (CASD) underpins this indefinite commitment. It is justified by claims—future vulnerability to surprise attack or crisis instability, morale, efficiency and training—unrelated to the nuclear arsenals of other states. It follows that the UK will never abandon CASD until and unless it abandons nuclear weapons altogether—hardly a signal of readiness to negotiate in multilateral disarmament talks.

In a highly complex system with no counter-factual, it is impossible to interrogate properly the assertion that UK arms reductions have had no impact. Yet Russia, the United States and France have certainly reduced their arsenals too. While it cannot be said that the UK caused this process, if Britain’s arsenal over the same period had increased it most certainly would have had an undesirable effect. And the subsequent beauty contest to claim leadership in disarmament moves in international meetings suggests that the nuclear-weapons states have influenced each other. Unfortunately, their mutual attachment to their underlying posture ensures each has remained comfortable maintaining its arsenal.

As for proliferation, true, the Indians and Pakistanis explicitly joined the nuclear club in 1998, the North Koreans later tested some crude devices in the mountains and there remain significant worries over Iran’s nuclear programme. But to conclude that the UK’s (and other nuclear-weapons states’) arms reductions have had no impact on the broader health of the non-proliferation regime would be wrong. Given that the NPT has been used to legitimise the discriminatory possession of a core currency of global power, it is extraordinary that it has been as successful as it has in limiting nuclear spread. It required the nuclear-weapons states to show just a little leg.

The improved security situation which facilitated the nuclear reductions in the 1990s also saw the conclusion of the chemical weapons convention, the signing of the comprehensive test ban and, crucially in 1995, the indefinite extension of the NPT. This last, a major concession by the non-nuclear-weapons states, would not have been achieved were it not for the positive disarmament signals issued at the time by the nuclear-weapons states—including the UK.

Key role

Disarmament and non-proliferation are linked. And the UK plays a key role. This is not to say that global disarmament would be just around the corner were it to forsake nuclear weapons tomorrow. But as perhaps the most progressive nuclear-weapons state closest to considering disarmament, what more can the UK do to move the others on?

In the summer BASIC will be publishing the final report of the cross-party Trident Commission—co-chaired by Malcolm Rifkind (Conservative), Menzies Campbell (Liberal Democrat) and Des Browne (Labour)—set up to consider UK nuclear-weapons policy in the light of Trident renewal. Among other things it will set out the need for the UK to inject new life into the global disarmament agenda. At BASIC we believe it should stop hiding behind the requirement that other states move first and make a start by outlining the steps each nuclear-weapons state needs to take to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world and how they can best collaborate to create the necessary conditions.

This will not come about through wishful thinking or grand speeches alone. States will have to review and change their security strategies, recognise the dependence of their security on the health of the international system and understand the complex trade-off between national capabilities and the need to reduce arsenals worldwide—to everyone’s benefit.

This article was originally featured on OpenSecurity, a section of

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