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Stepping Back into the Dark Ages: Making Sense of the UK Decision to Expand its Nuclear Arsenal

Boris Johnson’s government has announced its decision to introduce greater secrecy over the UK’s nuclear arsenal and to raise the cap on that arsenal. Presumably decision-takers thought they could take the criticism and bank the benefit. This appears to have taken much of the international community by surprise. President Biden has recently taken up office in the White House, the New START treaty has just been extended five years constraining any increase in the Russian nuclear arsenal, and the NPT Review Conference is just around the corner in August. The timing of this U turn could deliver a considerable blow to hopes for a constructive conference. Successive British governments have placed substantial weight behind developing a reputation as the most transparent of Nuclear Weapon States with the smallest arsenal, one that acts with greater sensitivity to the delicacies of nuclear diplomacy and that had engaged in consistent and successive gradual steps down the nuclear ladder. British diplomats now will be in the dog house, and have a tough time ahead of them. 

Still a Minimum Deterrent?

Within days of the formation of the Coalition Government in 2010 and during the NPT Review Conference the new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, the first Conservative in that post for 13 years, announced a new level of transparency and that Britain’s total nuclear stockpile was no more than 225 warheads. Some months later after a review the same government declared that each patrolling Trident submarine would have maximum eight missiles and 40 warheads, that there would be an operational stockpile of 120 warheads, and that there would be no more than 180 warheads in the overall stockpile by the mid-2020s. 

This week, a decade later, that ceiling limit was raised to 260, and perhaps more importantly the government took a step back into the dark ages of secrecy and declared they would no longer limit the numbers of missiles and warheads on each submarine or the operational stockpile. Theoretically a single patrolling Vanguard submarine could now carry more warheads than the original target for the whole UK arsenal. 

This move was justified on the basis of ‘the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats’. This is very vague, but it is not unusual for officials and analysts to claim that the security environment is poor and deteriorating. President Putin has in recent years announced new novel nuclear weapons, and the risks of nuclear use appear to have risen. So this move appears consistent with the intention of a credible deterrence? Not necessarily. 

Britain conducts what it describes as a minimum credible deterrence posture. That is, the ability to deliver such damage on an opponent that there is no scenario in which they would deem the risk of that destruction to be worth engaging in behaviour unacceptable to the British government. Factors affecting any size and capabilities of the UK arsenal necessary to deliver such a deterrent effect are independent of the offensive intent and capabilities of any adversary. 

This has until now been seen as a problem for any further reductions in arsenal size whilst there was interest in doing so, even were relations to improve, because the UK was now at rock bottom. The government still thought it needed 40 warheads on patrol to be sure of penetrating any defences and deterring the ‘enemy’ if relations were to deteriorate and the British were to face a crisis. Any deterioration in relations or a build up in offensive Russian nuclear systems would not affect this calculation. In any case, such a build-up has not happened. The Russians remain in compliance with New START limits.

So unless there is a suggestion that Russian is now willing to put up with greater levels of damage than before, or have developed better defences against missiles or technologies that disrupt submarines (not a suggestion entertained by the Ministry of Defence), then there is no necessity for the increase. 

Of Ambiguity and Secrecy

The announcement justified its dive into secrecy by claiming that the moves were simply an extension of the long-established practice of ambiguity ‘about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate the use of nuclear weapons’. This is disingenuous. Some degree of ambiguity over the circumstances of use is not in the same ball-park as secrecy over the size of the deployed arsenal and number of warheads and missiles on the submarines. Clarity over the latter could not possibly give comfort to an adversary when engaging in aggression. Such secrecy only weakens the ability to engage in arms control, and reduces accountability to the international community and the electorate. It is deeply unfortunate, for the reputation of the UK, for the future of any arms control, and for the health of the wider non-proliferation regime.

The Politics of the Move

This move belongs more comfortably in the Trump era, and one cannot help but suspect that most of the decisions were conceived in that context, months before they saw the light of day. Under Trump the damage to European confidence in US nuclear guarantees to NATO might have justified the UK in increasing its deployments to strengthen the umbrella. President Trump himself damaged an already weak sense of accountability of leaderships to the international community, so Boris Johnson would have felt less obliged to account for this decision. It will be interesting to read the tea-leaves in Washington round any response to the British move. It must surely be deeply unwelcome within some circles of the new Biden Administration. Does it signal a willingness in London to act contrary to US interests? And what damage could this do to the efforts of the Johnson government to develop good relations?

Future Diplomatic Relations

The damage to the United Kingdom’s reputation within the niche corner of the international community staffed by disarmament diplomats will no doubt be substantial. There will be significant disappointment and sharp criticism behind closed doors. The relevant question, though, is: what next? The Stockholm Initiative of sixteen Non-Nuclear Weapon States has been attempting to develop a progressive and inclusive Stepping Stones Approach to nuclear disarmament. They have been attempting to engage positively with the Nuclear Weapon States in a spirit of concern. This will be seen as a major set-back. How should they respond after their initial criticism?

The United Kingdom’s move highlights the need for the international community to develop the norm in favour of transparency, essential to so many dimensions of arms control and disarmament. The sixteen could engage the United Kingdom in a discussion in this area around nuclear doctrine and ambiguity, to get to the bottom of the confusion at the heart of this announcement. Ambiguity is seen within the deterrence community as essential to operations, but all-too-often applied over-generously, and thus papers over serious problems buried beneath. This crass move by the British may be just the impetus needed for a mature conversation aimed at addressing some fundamental assumptions that have gone unquestioned and that prevent the progress on nuclear disarmament that so many long for. 

Paul Ingram is the former Executive Director of BASIC. Views expressed belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC. Image CC 2.0 Flickr: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.


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