via LobeLog

by Peter Jenkins

Last week an independent, cross-party commission of inquiry into UK nuclear weapons policy issued its report.

The commission (comprising three politicians, two diplomats, one field marshal and two academics) reviewed the arguments for and against the UK retaining nuclear weapons. They came, somewhat hesitantly, to the conclusion that on balance a UK strategic nuclear deterrent should be retained.

LobeLog readers may be most interested in the commission’s review of the global threat environment, which is based on a distinction between threats that are an argument for retaining a nuclear deterrent and threats that are not.

That review opens with an endorsement for the British government’s view that threats are a product of both capability and intent: “The Commission [agrees] that currently no state has both the intent to threaten our vital interests and the capability to do so with nuclear weapons.”

This reminder of the compound nature of nuclear threats is relevant to the US debate on Iran’s nuclear activities — relevant, indeed, to the negotiations that are ongoing in Vienna. A fixation on Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities seems to blind some to the fact that there is still no sign that Iran’s leaders intend to build and use nuclear weapons to threaten vital US interests.

The commission’s view is that an Iranian nuclear threat has yet to emerge and (by implication) is not bound to do so: “Any further development of a nuclear programme in Iran, were the current developments to take a turn for the worse, is not a reason on its own for Britain to retain a nuclear deterrent.”

The commission is equally sanguine about the potential for the four nuclear–armed states (Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) to pose a threat that requires the retention of a nuclear deterrent. The commission is confident that neither India nor Pakistan will ever want to target the UK. They consider the UK’s strategic footprint in the Far East too small (what a change over the last 100 years!) for North Korea’s nuclear weapons to pose a substantial threat to the UK. Of Israel they write: “Israel’s nuclear arsenal does present a major challenge to regional arms control in the Middle East and to universalisation of the NPT, and as such is a difficult and critical obstacle to realising the essential global non-proliferation agenda. But it is no direct threat to the UK.”

These conclusions, together with the belief that strategic confrontation with China is highly unlikely, leave the commission contemplating only one possible threat as an argument for retention. In the commission’s view, recent events show that Russia is willing “to use the threat of military force…to shape the internal affairs of a sovereign country to conform to its desires.” This prompts the commission to the conclusion that NATO (and, by implication, Britain) should maintain a capacity to deter Russia from considering nuclear blackmail in pursuit of political objectives.

Following are three other arguments for retention, in the commission’s opinion:

  • while the US Trident program dwarfs the British one, there would be a technical, scientific and economic impact on the US were the UK to pull out, and the US might resent that;
  • the UK is explicitly committed to contributing to NATO security through its nuclear forces;
  • the pursuit of a multilateral nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agenda is crucial to strengthening UK security; possession of nuclear forces allows the UK to retain influence over the other Nuclear Weapon States, and to encourage them to move towards the shared US/UK vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

And here are four arguments that the commission dismisses:

  • the UK’s international status would suffer were it to give up nuclear weapons;
  • nuclear weapons can deter attacks by non-state actors, or chemical and biological weapon use by hostile states;
  • nuclear weapons are needed as a general insurance against an uncertain future;
  • nuclear weapons can serve as a “shield” for UK conventional forces to intervene out-of-area.

In reviewing industrial and budgetary considerations, the commission is more tentative. They recognize that several British communities have been dependent on the UK submarine industry for their viability, but they believe it would be wrong to allow this to be a decisive influence on a national security question. They find that capital expenditure on the Trident program, during the years when replacement submarines are being procured, will consume a quarter of the Defense Ministry’s capital projects budget, but they characterize this cost as “not prohibitive given the possible implications were the UK in future to face a nuclear-armed state.”

This last sentence suggests one flaw in the report. Though the commission is opposed to seeing a nuclear deterrent as insurance against uncertainty, their central argument can be reduced, irreverently, to: “We don’t really need it now, but it could come in handy one day.” Of course, this may be fitting: a majority of Britons would probably agree.

Photo: The HMS Victorious is the second Vanguard-class submarine of the Royal Navy. Victorious carries the Trident ballistic missile, the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

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