Britain’s Missed Opportunity to Reset Nuclear Button

Trident

© umbertoleporini

It is time the UK considered a more realistic set of security and defense policies that reflects its position in the world.

Now that the UK is heading for Brexit and reconsidering her role in the world, the UK Parliament’s decision to renew the Trident nuclear weapons program was a missed opportunity to recalibrate the UK’s outmoded view of itself and its international role.

The original rationale behind UK’s desire for an independent nuclear weapon capability disappeared at the same time as the risk that Western Europe could be overwhelmed by conventional armed forces from the Warsaw Pact—back in the day they had 55,000 tanks lined up against NATO’s 5,000. The argument ran that the numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact’s conventional forces could quickly overrun all the combined NATO forces in Western Europe—including any US reinforcements that could be flown in—and that a swift military defeat could be achieved without launching any Soviet nuclear weapons.

This was the reality of the Soviet threat during the Cold War. The NATO strategy to prevent this happening was the assertion that NATO was willing to launch a first strike nuclear attack of such ferocity that the capability of the Soviet nuclear forces to retaliate would be decimated, the major cites of the USSR would be destroyed and the capability of the conventional invading forces obliterated. This was a real deterrent, and it worked.

The Next European War

But for the UK—and for France—the worry remained that this policy assumed that the NATO response in the face of the Soviet aggression would be unified. The lessons of the First and Second World Wars reminded everyone that the US might decide to sit out the initial stages of the war while the Europeans settled their differences. The US government might decide that allowing a European conventional war to come to a resolution might be preferable to going nuclear and risking a nuclear bombardment of its own cities.

The US population and Congress may well be inclined to agree. Ernie Bevin, the foreign secretary in Clement Attlee’s government, was well aware of this in 1946. After a testy meeting with his US opposite number he said: “I don’t want any other foreign secretary of this country to be talked to or at by a Secretary of State in the United States as I have just had in my discussions with Mr Byrnes. We’ve got to have this thing [a nuclear bomb] over here whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.”


But in 2016, the UK is a fraction of what it was in terms of its geographical interests, military reach, share of population and global GDP. For years the UK has fretted about losing the UNSC seat and has devoted significant resources to finding out about and thwarting the plans of the Indian, Brazilians, Indonesians, Germans and whoever else might think that a permanent seat was more rightly theirs than ours. 


The UK policy was set to ensure that the US would not have the option of sitting out the next European war because the UK could independently go nuclear and remove the possibility of the European conflict remaining sub-nuclear. A unilateral UK nuclear strike would, so the reasoning ran, be able to slow down the Soviet invasion of Western Europe and buy perhaps two or three weeks before the Warsaw Pact conventional forces regained their composure and resumed their march west.

But the US would have to consider the consequences for itself if the USSR retaliated with nuclear weapons—almost certainly against the US as well as UK targets. In reality such decisions would be made very quickly indeed and the result would almost certainly—at least in the minds of the Soviets—be that the UK would be able to force a US nuclear first strike against the USSR. In effect, a UK finger on the US nuclear trigger.

Nuclear Blackmail

This theory behind the need for an independent UK nuclear capability held up as long as the Warsaw Pact maintained enough conventional forces to overrun Europe. This is not the case now and the need for the UK to be able to force the US into initiating a nuclear exchange has evaporated.

So what is the point of the UK’s independent nuclear capability? There is still a case for an allied nuclear weapon capability to deter nuclear weapon states and even those with conventional forces from major military adventures—and to deter and to respond to those that might attempt nuclear blackmail—either from North Korea or even ISIS or al-Qaeda, if they ever captured a nuclear weapon. David Cameron made this point in 2013 when he said: “We cannot be sure on issues of nuclear proliferation, and to me having that nuclear deterrent is quite simply the best insurance policy that you can have, that you will never be subject to nuclear blackmail.”

But this deterrent is much better placed within the collective European and NATO response. It is not something that the UK has any good reason to attempt independently. The UK does not seek independence for its conventional military response—indeed quite the reverse—so why for its nuclear capability?

The sensible and thoughtful nuclear deterrent is one that is part of the collective defence of the NATO and European theater—not as an independent capability whose only real use is to oblige the US to come to the UK’s rescue.

Smoke and Mirrors

There is, however, massive amounts of pride, amour-propre and vanity tied up in this subject. We need only look at one: the UK’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC). The status of the UK as a permanent member has become an anomaly. The UK gained this seat at a time when with its vast empire it was one of the victors of World War II and could assert that it ruled over and had legitimate interests in a quarter of the earth. It would have been odd for the UK to be left out.

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But in 2016, the UK is a fraction of what it was in terms of its geographical interests, military reach, share of population and global GDP. For years the UK has fretted about losing the UNSC seat and has devoted significant resources to finding out about and thwarting the plans of the Indian, Brazilians, Indonesians, Germans and whoever else might think that a permanent seat was more rightly theirs than ours. The trump card—at least in the UK government’s mind—is the UK independent nuclear status, though even that wears thin considering the Indians, and perhaps other contenders, have a nuclear capability too.

But take away the independent nuclear power card and what is left? Smoke and mirrors. Only the UK government is fooled by this. The reality is all too apparent to the rest of the world. Kofi Annan speaks for many as he recently put it:

“I firmly believe that the [UN Security] council should be reformed: it cannot continue as it is. The world has changed and the UN should change and adapt. If we don’t change the council, we risk a situation where the primacy of the council may be challenged by some of the new emerging countries.”

“I think those in privileged positions will have to think hard and decide what amount of power they are prepared to release to make the participation of the newcomers meaningful. If they do that, they will get cooperation; if they don’t, we risk confrontation.”

Instead of clinging to the past, a forward looking policy would be to seek a nuclear doctrine in sync with conventional military doctrine and a more sustainable role for the UK in international affairs—something for the new UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to consider. The UK has many assets, and its nuclear capability and the UK UNSC seat still have value—for now.

The UK would be wiser to use them before they depreciate any further to negotiate a durable, more realistic set of security and defense policies that recognizes the real UK position in the world. Collective nuclear security is a lot cheaper and more effective than an independent deterrent and the UK can spend the savings squandered in Trident on rebuilding its depleted conventional forces and rebalancing its security doctrine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: umbertoleporini


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