The UK will remain a nuclear weapon state, even if it has no operational or stockpiled nuclear weapons or means of delivering them, for as long as the NPT remains in existence. To alter this position, extraordinary legal, political and practical measures would have to be instituted to convince the international community that such a change is genuine and absolute.
The UK strategic nuclear deterrent has today two parallel roles. One is to act as a national deterrent against actions which directly threaten the security of UK territory. The second role is the core driver for sustaining a UK nuclear deterrent force, namely the provision of strategic nuclear capabilities to NATO’s SACEUR as part of a “common defence”. In this respect, any UK unilateral withdrawal from playing a NATO strategic deterrent role alongside the US seems highly unlikely, because of the uncertainties of the continuation of the US NATO nuclear roles (and NATO itself) that this would generate.
The UK is regarded by many non-nuclear weapon states as the most “forward looking” nuclear weapons state. A key question is therefore what the UK could do in the run up to the next NPT Review Conference in 2015. The first step is to encourage the other four NPT nuclear weapon states to engage in a process of dialogue on moving nuclear disarmament forward at the meeting in Paris in July 2011. By 2015, it would also be desirable for the UK to be in a position to demonstrate its forward looking posture over nuclear disarmament by decisions which, while sustaining its NATO security assurance role and capabilities, move itself and the alliance down the path of de-emphasising the role of nuclear weapons in the collective defence.
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