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Relics of the Past: Britain's Nuclear Deterrent

Updated: Aug 11, 2019

Relics of the Past: Ditching Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent

Ever since the end of the Second World War, Britain has further struggled to grapple to what its role is in the world. Following World War II, the UK was one of the three Great Powers (the others being USA and USSR) though the international community very much knew this was to be short-lived. Despite the international community’s assessment (and most pointedly, USA) the UK self-asserted its status as a great power predominantly until 1968(when PM Wilson, following the difficulties of the Sterling chose to withdraw militarily from ‘East of Suez,’ that is, South East Asia and the Gulf of Aden).

A Little History

Vulcan B.1, one of Britain's V-Bombers and our dominant nuclear deterrent until the arrival of Polaris.

A totem of the UK’s great power status would be its nuclear deterrent, with intent of bolstering the credibility of the Commonwealth and remnants of Empire. First developed independently in the late 1940s and deployed via the V-bombers in context of the Cold War, the UK’s capability has been updated via generations, much to the chagrin of the US during the 1960s(see the Skybolt Crisis and Nassau Agreement), in which the JFK administration officially opposed Britain’s nuclear proliferation, with the Secretary of State at the time, Dean Acheson stating that:

‘Britain's attempt to play a separate power role - that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a 'special relationship' with the United States, a role based on being the head of a Commonwealth which has no political structure or unity or strength and enjoys a fragile and precarious economic relationship - this role is about played out.’

Indeed, this was still when Britain had reasonably substantive foreign territories, unlike after the 1970s. Today, the UK operates the Trident nuclear deterrent, developed in the 1980s and 1990s replacing the Polaris system that came in the 1960s, in an international community that is far more complex than the Cold War ‘West and East’ axiom.

We must ask ourselves – does the UK’s nuclear deterrent seriously raise our international stature, and if not, what could it be spent on? Does the UK’s capability to ‘press the big red button’ really put us in the leagues of the United States, Russia and China? In this blog, I argue that via re-imagining Britain’s international role and eschewing the burden of the cumbersome nuclear deterrent, the UK can adopt greater international agility and foster relations with many other states practically and effectively.

The problems in maintaining a nuclear deterrent:

- *I will forego some of the typical arguments presented by anti-nuclear advocates consisting of criticisms of mutually assured destruction*

- The United Kingdom possesses four Vanguard submarines with 200 warheads. Firstly, does that make a significant dent against the USA Russia’s respective 6,000+ warheads each? Secondly, when would we ever use our deterrent independent of NATO?

- The potential cost of Trident’s replacement, Dreadnought, is almost prohibitively expensive, currently projected at £31 billion, a further £10 billion in contingencies and estimations of the lifetime program coming in at £179 billion, entering service in the early 2030s until the 2060s. Currently, the funding has not been allocated and is currently planned to come out of the MoD’s budget rather than the Treasury, which may result in either an expansion of the military budget, or cuts to other military services(which would radically impact a strained budget as is). Trident isn’t cheap either. It goes without saying, that this money could very well be used elsewhere.

Despite controversies of him being the Defence Secretary during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, Robert McNamara was in later life an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons.

- Far more high ranking and retired defence personnel have been openly outspoken to nuclear weapons (quotes taken from In Retrospect, by Robert S. McNamara, Appendix pg. 344-345):

• By 1982, five of the seven retired chiefs of the British Defence Staff had expressed their belief that initiating the use of nuclear weapons, in accordance with NATO policy, would lead to disaster. Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of staff from 1959 to 1965, said a few months before he was murdered in 1979: "As a military man I can see no use for any nuclear weapons." And Field Marshall Lord Carver, chief of staff from 1973 to 1976, wrote in 1982 that he was totally opposed to NATO ever initiating the use of nuclear weapons.

• Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's national security adviser and secretary of state, speaking in Brussels in 1979, made quite clear he believed the United States would never initiate a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, no matter what the provocation. "Our European allies," he said, "should not keep asking us to multiply strategic assurances that we cannot possibly mean or if we do mean, we should not execute because if we execute we risk the destruction of civilization." Admiral Noel Gayler, former commander in chief of U.S. air, around, and sea forces in the Pacific, remarked in 1981: "There is no sensible military use of any of our nuclear forces. The only reasonable use is to deter our opponents from using his nuclear forces."

• Former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt stated in a 1987 BBC interview: "Flexible response [NATO's strategy calling for the use of nuclear weapons in response to a Warsaw Pact attack by nonnuclear forces] is nonsense. Not out of date, but nonsense. . . . The Western idea, which was created in the 1950's, that we should be willing to use nuclear weapons first, in order to make up for our so-called conventional deficiency, has never convinced me."

• Melvin Laird, President Nixon's first secretary of defense, was reported in The Washington Post of April 12, 1982, as saying: "A worldwide zero nuclear option with adequate verification should now be our goal. . . . These weapons . . . are useless for military purposes."

• General Larry Welch, former U.S. Air Force chief of staff and previously commander of the Strategic Air Command, recently put the same thought in these words: "Nuclear deterrence depended on someone believing that you would commit an act totally irrational if done."

• And in July 1994, Gen. Charles A. Horner, chief of staff of the U.S. Space Command, stated: "The nuclear weapon is obsolete. I want to get rid of them all."

- Having a nuclear deterrent often obfuscates more nuanced diplomatic paths that could have been taken. While states like Russia may attempt to undermine the UK’s faculties while breaking international accords without risking war.

o Consider this thought experiment:

o The year is 2028. Following the last 15 years, relations between Russia and the West has further degraded. Following Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare’ strategy in which Russia attempts to gain power via any means without provoking conflict (such as Crimea, in which Russia deployed special forces in Ukraine to assist rebel forces, while denying it openly despite indisputable evidence), Western sanctions have failed to prevent further Russian belligerence. This belligerence has escalated to such a level just short of war that Russia fires an anti-satellite missile into space. Having destroyed a satellite, the debris spurs a chain reaction, destroying thousands of other satellites in its path, knocking out the whole satellite network in space. Many wireless services taken for granted by all has the capacity to cast Western economies back to a scale greater than what the Great Depression could have ever inflicted. Russia’s reasoning on the matter, is reflected in the fact that the West’s dependency on satellites is far greater than her own. While everyone loses, the West loses more. Following the destruction, the West squares the blame on Russia, while Russia claims it was a failed satellite launch, rather than an anti-satellite missile. There is indisputable evidence that proves the Russians are lying, but in no way would Russia ever allude to the validity of these claims.

o States like the UK would find themselves in a difficult situation on where to proceed. Despite the destruction of the satellites, no bullet has been fired, no one has died, and no civilian has been injured. Yet, the UK has incurred an economic impact far greater than that seen of both World Wars which would indirectly result in civilian deaths and overall livelihood. What are the UK’s options? Ignore the action and seek no retribution? Seek revenge and inevitably escalate to nuclear conflict, despite the fact no one has died (and then, ironically, end human existence)? The answers seem clunky and inadequate in both situations.

o We find in ourselves, as unpleasant a thought experiment as it is, that we’re left with an impossible situation. However, what can be asserted from this is that:

§ The current mechanisms for declaring war are too black and white, which permits states to take subversive actions without receiving repercussions,

§ When ‘the gloves are off,’ war invariably escalates to nuclear conflict between sophisticated nations,

§ This is an impossible situation and makes nuclear weapons unpalatable, and most likely unusable,

§ Thus, we spend on a deterrent that we would never use and burn money on pointlessly that is as ineffective (if not worse), than not responding at all.

It isn’t the intention of this article to find a middle way in this hypothetical scenario. The intention is to show that a nuclear deterrent gives us no better option than doing nothing, while simultaneously spending a significant amount of money on it.

So, what can we use the money on?

Currently, our British post-Brexit international strategy is titled as ‘Global Britain,’ which aims to assure the international community that Brexit is not a sign of the UK falling into isolationism. Indeed, the UK for the past centuries has never been a nation of isolationism (for better or worse with whom you ask, to put it lightly), and it is prescient to assure our allies that this is the case. As part of the Global Britain strategy we are attempting to kindle relationships with ‘new allies and old friends,’ or more bluntly put, anyone we can get a good deal with. Some free marketeers or Brexiteers may propose that our economic stature is our main selling point, though I personally remain sceptical. In a report on ‘Global Britain and the UN,’ many UN representatives from their respective states were far more interested in Britain’s actions in the Middle East and Africa, whether humanitarian or militarily.

The UK is the fourth largest spender in real terms on her military. The UK enjoys an extremely capable expeditionary force (in principle) that can deploy around the world whether for humanitarian or military involvement. Relative to our size, the UK possesses an abnormally large air transport fleet as well as airborne intelligence assets. Problematically, British force capabilities have been further hamstrung in cuts very much endangering the capabilities the MoD claims it is capable of(see the Defence Affairs Committee’s report here, or Ashcroft’s ‘White Flag?’ which are good overviews on the matter). Bolstering our expeditionary and humanitarian capability to be able to assist governments in volatile situations may have the capacity to build a better rapport amongst the Global South, or 3rd World. This may consist of acquiring more transport aircraft, more amphibious assault ships, lower cost air support assets such as UAVs or counter insurgency aircraft that can free up our ‘silver bullet’ capabilities meant for more threatening situations. Certainly, prior to 2005, the Royal Air Force possessed both the Harrier and Jaguar, which were considerably cheaper to operate than the Typhoon, Tornado and upcoming F-35, and far better suited for lower threat environments.

Two examples of our transport fleet, the RAF Voyager and Atlas.

Indeed, further investing in our expeditionary capability could present the United Kingdom as more of a team player, backing up our foreign aid budget with a ‘hands on’ military capability. Even more speculatively, it could break present new foreign policy options for the UK, independent of the United States.


Britain’s retention of nuclear arms at this point is no more than a political football. Many defence chiefs are wary of the capability and would rather see the money spent elsewhere. There is no strategically viable situation whereby a favorable outcome in using a nuclear weapon could occur. Hostile nations have become far more dynamic in undermining power while removing accountability from the issue, in which provocation and exploitation just short of declaring war is the desired strategy, banking that the West does not respond, knowing full well that the West either escalate to full nuclear proliferation, or does nothing at all. Nuclear deterrence is best termed as a money furnace that offers no pragmatic solutions aside from the irrational.

Britain can redefine what it means to be a global player, withdrawing from the conventional Cold War connotations to a greater international team player with 3rd world states, diverting sums to a larger humanitarian capability and military force. Rather than having the totem of nuclear deterrence, let’s build on a capability we will truly use and gain respect within the international community in a post-Brexit world.

Post Script: - In an ideal world I would also like HMG to fund our force properly between 2.5-3% GDP, but even in that scenario I would advocate our nuclear capability be ditched for improve our forces further rather than patching it up.

Post Post Script: And before those who suggest the money be spent on the NHS – the added money would be the equivalent to a 2% increase; defence has had enough cut from it.

Written by Peter Anson

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