By Christy Quinn:
The Trident Commission, comprised of representatives of the three major parties and members of the UK defence establishment and organised by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), represents the latest attempt to evaluate the necessity of the UK nuclear deterrent and its renewal.[i] Unfortunately, it has simply ended up restating many of the existing contradictions of UK nuclear strategy.
Historically the UK government has justified maintaining its own nuclear arsenal as the necessary price of remaining a world power in an era dominated by the United States. Thankfully the Commission has recognised the declining role of nuclear power in international diplomacy and looked primarily at how Trident contributes to the UK’s national security. It has ended up focusing its requirement for retaining a UK nuclear deterrent around the hypothetical “nuclear blackmail”scenario, where an aggressive nuclear-armed state threatens nuclear attack unless its needs or objectives are met. However, the Commision provides very little evidence about the likelihood of such a scenario and when policymakers in unfriendly countries would consider it in their interests. Indeed, it is highly likely that such behavior would be counterproductive in turning such states into ‘pariahs’, resulting in diplomatic and economic isolation.[ii] The primary example of brinkmanship resembling nuclear blackmail in recent years has been North Korea, which has periodically raised tensions with the US and South Korea in order to extract economic concessions. However, the report rightly notes the isolation of the UK from the South Asian strategic theatre and its small role in the conflict, to the extent that the UK’s nuclear deterrent is not relevant.
Special attention in the report was given to Russia, where Russian involvement in the Ukrainian conflict and the perceived threat to the Baltic states have forced a reassessment of the likelihood of Russian aggression against NATO member states. If Russia were to blackmail the UK to comply with its political objectives under threat of nuclear attack, it would have to assume that it faces no risk of nuclear retaliation. Russia would also have to assume that the US has also disarmed. There is frankly no possibility of the US completely disarming and withdrawing the nuclear umbrella over its NATO allies while there are any potentially unfriendly nuclear states still in existence. France conceivably may also have a problem with its EU partner, NATO ally and close neighbour being threatened with nuclear annihilation. In this reading, the United States’s nuclear deterrent and its willingness to protect its allies is the only one necessary to prevent nuclear blackmail. If Russia threatened to attack UK territory or bases with nuclear weapon, the US would be expected to honour Article 5 and defend Britain with any means necessary.[iii] Would the US stand idly by if London, a global trading centre and a key base of Western geopolitical power, suddenly disappeared under a rain of thermonuclear missiles? It’s a very hard scenario to imagine outside of a Hollywood thriller.
Furthermore, the report also confirms that the UK nuclear deterrent is entirely dependent upon US support and cooperation. Whilst the operational decisions for Trident are made by the Prime Minister, the UK only possesses Trident with the explicit support and technical cooperation of the US. If the US did withdraw its support for maintaining the UK nuclear deterrent, it would take “months rather than years” for their operational ability to expire due to shared maintenance agreements for the missiles and warheads.[iv] Many key components for the missiles are manufactured exclusively in the US. Even in the event of a renewed deterrent that featured an entirely new warhead and vehicle design, the prohibitive cost of starting from scratch would force the MoD to depend at least partially on US designs compatible with UK submarine designs.
Another major problem facing Trident is its lack of deterrent against the most likely form of nuclear attack; where a terrorist group, either with or without the help of an unfriendly state, detonates a mobile, low-yield nuclear weapon in a populated area. One of the most discussed scenarios in security circles is political instability in Pakistan leading to the country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands.[v] If the terrorist group were evidenced to have obtained its warhead from Pakistan’s military or intelligence units, what would constitute proportionate response? Does Mutually Assured Destruction apply to state-sponsored terrorism? Do the residents of Islamabad warrant nuclear retaliation due to the actions of their government, or rogue actors within it? If there was no evidence of state sponsorship and the attack was entirely conducted by non-state actors, who or where warrants retaliation? Trident answers none of these questions. It is a strategic relic from another age that the UK’s defence establishment cannot face up to losing, despite its diminishing value in the 21st century.
Christy Quinn is an incoming student for the MA in Intelligence & International Security at the War Studies Department of Kings College London and is a graduate of International History at the London School of Economics. His primary research interests include cyber security, diplomacy & strategy, economic history and the SE Asia and MENA regions. You can follow Christy on Twitter @christyquinn
UK Cabinet Office. “Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR)”, HM Government, 2010.
T.C. “Accounting and the Bomb”, The Economist, 30 July 2010.
[i] BASIC, “The Trident Commission: Concluding Report”, British American Security Information Council (BASIC), 2014.
[ii] Sechser, Todd S. and Fuhrmann, Matthew, Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail (2012). International Organization, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2135028
[iii] North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), “What is Article 5?”NATO. http://www.nato.int/terrorism/five.htm
[iv] Taylor, Richard N. “UK’s nuclear deterrent entirely dependent on the US –cross party report”, The Guardian, 1 July 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/defence and-security-blog/2014/jul/01/trident-nuclear-weapons-uk
[v]“What US could do if Pakistan loses control over nukes”, Global Security Newswire, http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/what-us-could-do-if-pakistan-loses-control-over-nukes/