Despite being costly and pretty useless, the U.K. is keeping its nukes
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal consists of just four Vanguard-class submarines, each capable of launching up to 16 Trident II nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Each missile can carry more than a dozen individual warheads.
But with an estimated annual cost of more than £15 billion, this small fleet is expensive. Worse, the submarines and their nukes are growing more relatively costly as Britain slashes military spending after more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Now many defense experts—including former British troops—don’t know what to make of the atomic weapons. Despite a near consensus that the nukes are costly and nearly useless, many also argue Britain should keep these weapons of mass destruction all the same.
Confused? You should be. Those are just some of the contradictory conclusions in a new report from the Nuclear Information Service and the Nuclear Education Trust—two U.K. non-profit organizations that favor nuclear disarmament.
Described as a “snapshot,” researchers interviewed 35 anonymous experts between July 2014 and February 2015. While none of these individuals were in the military during that time, 20 of the respondents had previously served in the British Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force.
“The majority of ex-military interviewees were in favor of the U.K.’s continued possession of nuclear weapons,” the study’s executive summary stated.
But “many had reservations concerning the cost of nuclear weapons,” the report added. In addition, “there was a lack of clarity about their role and concern about the level of attention given … by senior decision-makers and within the armed forces.”
“The study took place at a time … in the wake of significant cuts to military equipment budgets and losses of large numbers of military jobs,” Peter Burt, research manager at Nuclear Information Service, wrote in an email.
“Replacing Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons looks set to consume around a third of the defense equipment budget over the next 15 years,” Burt added.
In December 2006, the Ministry of Defense estimated it would spend an additional £15 to £20 billion to build new subs, modernize or buy new missiles, make sure the warheads work and update various facilities to support the whole project.
But nearly three years later, environmental group Greenpeace declared the so-called “Successor Program” would really require nearly £100 billion in public funds.
Greenpeace deduced this number by adding a variety of associated costs—mainly the price of actually operating the boats—to the ministry’s original estimate. The British government hasn’t yet decided whether to go ahead with the upgrade program.
But if the government kills the program, the freed-up billions would ostensibly go to weapons the military actually wants to use — such as new armored vehicles, fighter jets, warships or to help replace gear worn out on battlefields in the Middle East and Central Asia.
“It’s no surprise that many in the armed forces community have feelings of deep unease about spending on nuclear weapons,” Burt noted. “They play no role against the threats the forces are currently tackling, such as terrorism, asymmetric warfare and cyber attack.”
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that any money saved by killing the Successor Program would end up somewhere more useful. “The conventional wisdom is that … the military fears a loss of conventional capability caused by the need to pay for nuclear weapons,” research fellow Dr. Matthew Harries of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said.
“But … several [interviewees in this study] were skeptical about the idea that, if the U.K. scrapped nuclear weapons, the savings would be passed on to fund conventional military capabilities.”
To be sure, the U.K. has scaled back its nuclear deterrent. As of January, the Royal Navy is only sending its boomers out on patrol with eight Tridents and a total of 40 warheads—about five nukes per missile. The military has also declared that it hopes to cut its total stockpile to fewer than 200 warheads by 2025.
Participants in the study suggested politics and fears of irrelevance are driving the Successor Program. “The nuclear threat has not gone away,” Prime Minister David Cameron declared in 2013. “In terms of uncertainty and potential risk it has, if anything, increased.”
Cameron cited countries such as Iran and North Korea as potential nuclear threats. There’s also the renewed threat from Russia. “Russia is making thinly-veiled nuclear threats, and NATO may be revising its nuclear posture in response,” Harries said. “In the wider world, nuclear weapons are unfortunately still very much in play.”
Three months ago, the Russian ambassador to Denmark threatened the small Scandinavian country with the prospect of nuclear war if it joined NATO’s missile defense scheme. In terms of nuclear firepower, Russia is the only country that could pose an existential threat to Britain.
But “U.K. officials are almost uniform in their view that nuclear weapons serve only to deter, and if necessary defeat … ‘existential’ threats,” one participant said. That rules out Iran and North Korea.
The end of Britain’s nuclear deterrent might also threaten its place in NATO and the international community. While the nuclear club has expanded since the end of World War II, membership remains small.
“The U.K. giving up its nuclear weapons could be interpreted by the U.S. as being a signal indicating that the U.K. is happy to hide under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, but is not prepared to contribute to it,” another participant told the researchers.
However, “there is a huge assumption that the U.S. will maintain its contribution to the NATO nuclear umbrella whatever happens.”
If Britain dismantled its nuclear arsenal, France would become the only atomic force among NATO’s European members. The U.K. would become the only non-nuclear power among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Retired British Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Cordingley decried this way of thinking at a launch event for the report. “We have more to offer than nuclear bombs,” Cordingley said.
Nuclear-armed states or terrorists and Whitehall’s own credibility aren’t the only existential concerns.
Closer to home, British nukes became an important subject in a referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014. The Royal Navy keeps its missile subs at Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Clyde. The powerful Scottish National Party wants the boats and their nukes gone as a matter of policy.
Of those participants who do support nuclear disarmament in principle, many felt it was an unrealistic goal. A few others also said they were worried that Britain’s increasingly small military could be threatened by larger forces without the equalizing power of nukes.
“Global nuclear disarmament is almost a utopia in a sense,” one interviewee lamented. “If you could convince everyone to do it, and they did it, and they believed it, and you could prevent others from getting nuclear weapons, it would be brilliant.”
“I would be surprised if that was the answer the authors were looking for,” Harries said. So the British nuclear arsenal seems likely to survive for the foreseeable future … even if no one really sure who or what it’s deterring against.