Preserving the character of the nation: British military attitudes to nuclear weapons

What are the views of the British military on nuclear weapons today? How can we answer this question given both the different actors and institutions and the level of secrecy surrounding this issue? Moreover, why should those supportive of non-proliferation and disarmament, or anyone else- especially given the political nature of these weapons- care what the military thinks? As a study published by the Nuclear Education Trust (NET) and Nuclear Information Service (NIS) this week entitled UK Military Attitudes to Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament states ‘The armed forces have a unique relationship with and experience of the country’s nuclear arsenal. They are responsible for deploying the UK’s nuclear weapons, ensuring their security, and for delivering many aspects of the country’s security strategy.’ The study highlighted that whilst many believe the UK should remain a nuclear power, significant concerns exist about the costs and risks of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system amongst the military community, raising doubts about its future.

This article by Tim Street complements the recent NET / NIS study by considering these issues within the current domestic and international political context, particularly the impact of deep public spending cuts and the crisis in Ukraine. This is done in order to better understand the pressures the British armed forces are currently under and the effect this has on the nuclear weapons debate, particularly given the concerns raised by former and serving military personnel regarding the government’s approach to defence and the strategy underpinning it in recent years. For example, the determination of the government to build four new nuclear-armed submarines in order to maintain continuous-at-sea-deterrence (CASD), whereby a submarine is perpetually on deterrent patrol, ‘threatens to be at the expense of further reduction in conventional forces’ producing an apparent contradiction in the UK’s security strategy given that prominent political and military figures have argued that the UK needs strong conventional military capabilities in order for the threat to use nuclear weapons- as in deterrence- to remain credible.

Overall, this article therefore seeks to address this contradiction by proposing that, in addition to the compelling moral and legal arguments for nuclear disarmament, given prevailing economic and political dynamics, the UK is finding it increasingly difficult to meet the ambition of being a leading power with a strong military capable of global power projection. Yet rather than planning for a transition to a security strategy and identity compatible with its available resources and the real threats to security facing the nation’s citizens- such as climate change, hunger and poverty- planners prefer to maintain familiar policies which minimise institutional risk.

Click the link below to read the full report.

BASIC has published this report in order to complement the recent study conducted by the Nuclear Information Service and to further the disarmament debate in the United Kingdom, but the views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BASIC.

Image source:

© Crown Copyright 2013

Photographer: LA(Phot) Will Haigh

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