THE BLOG

The UK's Nuclear Future

20/01/2015 15:07 GMT | Updated 21/03/2015 09:59 GMT

News of project overspends, Ed Miliband's hints that Labour might be prepared to downgrade the UK's nuclear forces and the imminent SNP/Plaid Cymru/Green lead parliamentary debate which seeks to "call time on Trident" mean that the UK's nuclear deterrent may soon find itself back on the political agenda. With the "Main Gate" procurement decision due in 2016 the SNP and Plaid have made clear they will use whatever leverage they have over the next government to push the UK towards unilateral, nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons and their continuing proliferation present huge challenges to our security. However, it is important to review our nuclear legacy, before discussing the future of the UK's nuclear weapons programme.

The UK's nuclear programme can trace its history back to the Tube Alloys programme, initiated in 1940 when the UK was only one of a handful of liberal democracies left throughout the globe, seemingly waiting to be violently swept up by a new, totalitarian Nazi world order. As intelligence indicated Nazi Germany was developing its own nuclear weapons programme it was imperative that the UK get there first. Ultimately the Nazis failed to produce a nuclear weapon and US nuclear strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted Japan to surrender before it could acquire and deploy its own radiological weapon.

However, the elimination of Nazi totalitarianism throughout Europe was swiftly replaced by Soviet totalitarianism. When GEN 75, the cabinet's committee on nuclear energy, met in October 1946 to discuss the reinitiation of the UK's nuclear weapons programme (Tube Alloys having been absorbed into the US' Manhattan Project in 1942) Ernest Bevin forcefully argued "We've got to have this thing... whatever it costs... We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it." Bevin believed a nuclear weapons capability would drastically alter the UK's strategic calculation vis a vis the Soviet Union, allowing a British David to stand tall in front of a Soviet goliath. Despite some cabinet opposition to committing to a vastly expensive military project during a time of real austerity the programme was pursued. The UK tested its first nuclear weapon in October 1952 in the Monte Bello Islands, the first Blue Danube free fall bombs being issued to the RAF in November 1953.

Almost as soon as the RAF had invested in a new V-Bomber fleet to deliver its new generation of free fall nuclear bombs, the whole programme faced irrelevance. In the new age of Soviet ballistic missiles and improved air defences bombers were not a credible deterrent and the UK was unable to keep up. During the 1956 Suez Crisis the shortcomings of the British deterrent were laid bare when the Soviet Union were confident enough to threaten nuclear missile strikes against London. The following year overtures were made to the USA, resulting in the Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) being concluded in 1958. The MDA paved the way for the Polaris Sales Agreement (PSA) in 1963, under which the USA agreed to make Polaris submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) available to the UK. The UK's first ballistic missile carrying nuclear submarine (SSBN), HMS Resolution began her patrols in 1967, followed by HMS Repulse, HMS Renown and HMS Revenge over the following two years. The SLBM option offered the UK a truly credible nuclear deterrent. Whilst bombers could be destroyed in their hangers, the SSBN being virtually impossible to locate at sea the deterrent was protected from preemptive attack and could threaten retaliatory strikes against an aggressor. The PSA provided for the UK's acquisition of Trident in 1981.

Part of the diplomatic bargain struck between the UK and US whilst negotiating the PSA was that the UK's SSBN fleet, whilst independent and requiring specific authorisation to fire from the British Prime Minister, was assigned to NATO. The commitment of the UK's nuclear deterrent to NATO significantly altered the strategic calculations of NATO members and enemies. Had the Cold War ever turned hot in Europe, the Soviet Union would have faced a serious strategic question. Say for example they deployed conventional forces into West Germany - would the US President live up to his NATO commitments and come to West Germany's aid, risking escalation of the conflict to a nuclear level? Or would he, fearing nuclear strikes on Washington, New York and Chicago stand down? Any miscalculation could have terrifying repercussions. However, the Soviet Union now had to factor the UK into any such decision. Even if the US failed to retaliate, the UK might. This dynamic, known as the "second centre of decision" is thought to have greatly enhanced the credibility of extended deterrence within NATO. Not only was Soviet decision making complicated but NATO members could have more faith in the alliance, leaving them less inclined to pursue their own nuclear weapons programmes. One could describe the UK's nuclear deterrent as a European deterrent, held in trust by the UK.

Today's strategic environment is markedly different from that of the Second World War and Cold War. The UK no longer considers itself one of three great superpowers. Liberal democracy has expanded throughout the world. However, Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams' claim that the UK's nuclear weapons programme is an irrelevant, "Cold War relic" is ignorant at best.

Since the end of the Cold War NATO has undergone huge changes, expanding its membership into Eastern Europe and expanding its range of operations to encompass the Middle East, Africa and the Indian Ocean as well its traditional Euro-Atlantic theatre. It's raison d'etre still remains the mutual defence of its members, in particular against Russia, the menacing elephant lurking awkwardly in the corner of the room. Relations between Russia and NATO and its allies are nowhere near as fraught as during the Cold War. However, Russia's recent annexations of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimea, its repeated attempts to destabilise Ukraine, as well as various NATO and EU member states, not to mention its regular probing of UK and Norwegian airspace with nuclear armed bombers are a real cause of concern. How Russia's foreign policy will develop over the coming decades is anyones' guess! Our NATO allies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania all have real cause for concern. To abandon our nuclear deterrent now would send a powerful diplomatic signal to Russia - that the UK does not take its commitment to NATO seriously. It would send an equally powerful signal to our allies in Eastern Europe - that we don't care! Outside of Europe, the UK's nuclear deterrent plays a vital role in protecting our troops deployed overseas. Despite no longer being a superpower the UK plays an important and active role in the world. Since the end of the Cold War this has led to British troops being deployed on operations around the globe. Evidence suggests that the explicit threat of US and British retaliatory nuclear strikes deterred Saddam Hussein from chemical and biological strikes against British troops during the First Gulf War. Meanwhile, Iran seems intent on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability with which to threaten the UK's allies and interests in the Middle East and closer to home. The future is uncertain and full of potential threats - unilateral disarmament will severely undermine the security of our people, our allies and liberal democracy globally.

The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party are keen to emphasise the costs attached to the renewal of the UK's nuclear deterrent. A like for like renewal of the UK's nuclear forces, with four Successor-class SSBNs replacing the current four Vanguard-class boats, armed with Trident II D5 SLBMs, is estimated to be in the region of £20 billion spent over a period of more than a decade. They consistently argue that this is a huge investment to be making at a time of austerity. The Leader of the SNP in the House of Commons, Angus Robertson MP, commented on the recent news that the £3bn Assessment Phase of the Successor SSBN project is set to go over budget by £261m in 2015, saying "it is frankly scandalous that a further quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers' money is to be spent on Trident... In no other democracy, at a time of deep austerity and cuts, would over £3bn be spent on committing to such a massive project." Angus' comments have a couple of glaring issues. £261m is a drop in the ocean when compared to other areas of Government spending. It equates to 0.27% of English NHS spending for the 2013/14 period, or 1.3% of the overall budget for the Successor SSBN project. £206m of the overspend will be spent on new facilities at the BAE Systems' shipyards in Barrow-in-Furness, supporting jobs and putting money in peoples' pockets. Furthermore, the UK is not comparable to "other democracies" - its nuclear deterrent has a unique role, enhancing deterrence for our NATO allies throughout the Euro-Atlantic area and further afield. These aren't issues that say Germany, Norway or Poland have to contend with, as they aren't providing their own deterrence, they're relying on NATO, guaranteed by the UK and US. Let's also not forget that the £20bn budget, to be spent over more than a decade, for a like for like renewal of the UK's SSBN fleet is dwarfed by other public sector budgets, the English NHS budget of £95.6bn for 2013/14 alone being a case in point. For a large scale, long term, public sector building project, an overspend of only 1.3% sounds minimal, especially when it underpins UK and wider international security!

Angus' assertion that the current Conservative lead coalition and former Labour governments are "morally repugnant" in their retention of the UK's nuclear deterrent completely glosses over the very real steps the UK has made in the direction of disarmament. Despite our nuclear weapons playing a hugely important role in international security nuclear weapons are not a case of the more the merrier and under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) we are committed to work in good faith towards reducing nuclear arms racing and eventually towards disarmament. In 1998 the British Government de-targeted its missiles, placing submarine crews on days (instead of minutes) notice to fire; scrapped the WE. 177 nuclear free fall bomb, leaving the UK with a single nuclear weapons system; reduced the number of warheads deployed at any one time from ninety-six to forty-eight; decreased the number of operational stockpiled warheads from 300 to 200 and reduced the number of SSBNs on patrol to one at any time. During the 2000s Trident's sub-strategic role was removed, denuclearising UK defence policy. In 2010 the Government went further with the Strategic Defence and Security Review, cutting the number of warheads deployed per SSBN to forty; its overall stockpile of operational warheads to less than 180 and reaffirming its negative security assurances, pledging not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear armed states. Whilst being committed to guaranteeing the security of our NATO allies in a stable security environment, the British Government has cut back its nuclear deterrent wherever practical, positively embracing the concept of minimum deterrence. The UK can take pride in possesing the smallest nuclear force out of the mature, established nuclear powers and being the most proactive NPT recognised nuclear weapons state when it comes to disarmament.

Moving forward, we need to recognise the important role our nuclear deterrent plays internationally. Despite the global security environment having changed markedly since 1940, to abandon our deterrent now would only serve to undermine our own security, the security of our allies and that of liberal democracy globally. We should continue to embrace the concept of minimum deterrence. If we can maintain a credible deterrent posture with a two or three boat fleet of Successor SSBNs then we should embrace that option - although new analysis suggests that such a fleet just couldn't be relied upon in the long term. This fleet must continue to be equipped with the Trident SLBM, the only credible nuclear weapons system available to the UK.