BASIC-BITS Research Report 98.5
ISBN: 1 874533 35 0

Nuclear Futures

Western European options for nuclear risk reduction

Martin Butscher, Otfried Nassauer & Stephen Young



2. The United Kingdom

The nuclear arsenal of the United Kingdom is the smallest of the five declared nuclear-weapon states.1 Since the inception of the British nuclear programme in the 1940s, the UK has seen nuclear weapons as a way of maintaining its international standing. In the 1990s, British perceptions continue to link nuclear weapons with retaining the UK's status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and as a major player in NATO and Europe.

However, since the end of the Cold War, public support has grown steadily in the UK for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The UK Government even cited a recent opinion poll on the subject. Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, told the House of Lords: "In the Gallup Poll which was conducted in October this year [1997], 87% of those questioned supported negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons. We pay close attention to that".2 The same poll found that 59% of those questioned thought it was best for the security of their community if Britain did not have nuclear weapons, and 54% supported immediate steps to withdraw Trident nuclear warheads from deployment at sea and place them in storage.3

The new UK Government, however, has been clear that it intends to retain Trident. In July 1998, the Government released the results of its 13-month long Strategic Defence Review.4 The Defence Review included a series of decisions affecting the size and structure of the British nuclear forces, including reductions in the arsenal. Yet the new Government made clear the terms of the Defence Review before it started: the UK would retain the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile system. The Defence Review stated the reasons for keeping Trident:

[I]n present conditions nuclear deterrence still has an important contribution to make in insuring against the re-emergence of major strategic military threats, in preventing nuclear coercion, and in preserving peace and stability in Europe.5

It also noted that the Government needed "to ensure that [Trident] can remain an effective deterrent for up to 30 years".6

In the Defence Review, the Government estimated the total lifetime costs of the Trident programme at œ12.52 billion (approximately US$20.03 billion). It estimated the annual running cost of the submarine programme at around œ280 million (US$448 million) during its thirty-year life, with another œ400 million (US$640 million) annually for the warhead and fissile material program. However, other recent statements from the Government indicate that spending on nuclear weapons is substantially higher than those figures.7


2.1 Nuclear Posture

Since the end of the Cold War, the previous Government made a number of reductions in British nuclear forces. Some of these steps inevitably resulted from or were linked to the 1991 US unilateral decision to reduce substantially both the types and numbers of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. These reductions were highlighted in the Defence Review:

Since 1992, the United Kingdom has given up:

- the nuclear Lance missile and artillery roles we undertook previously with US nuclear weapons held under dual-key arrangements;
- our maritime tactical nuclear capability, so that Royal Navy surface ships no longer have any capability to carry or deploy nuclear weapons;
- all of our air-launched nuclear weapons.8

The last point refers to the withdrawal of the WE-177 gravity bomb from active service, which was completed on 31 March 1998. With that withdrawal, the UK now deploys the Trident as its sole nuclear capability. Three Trident submarines, HMS Vanguard, HMS Victorious, and HMS Vigilant are already in service.9 The fourth and final submarine, HMS Vengeance, was launched in September 1998 and is scheduled for active deployment around the turn of the century.10

In the Defence Review, the Government announced that it would "maintain fewer than 200 operationally available nuclear warheads, a reduction of one third from the previous government's plans".11 Each Trident submarine will carry 48 warheads. This is a reduction from the previous government's policy of a ceiling of 96. In parliamentary questioning, the Government also announced that under the previous government the normal load of warheads on each submarine was 60. It added that,

12 warheads are to be removed from each of the three Trident submarines currently in service during their next programmed docking in the warhead fitting facility at Coulport. This process will be completed before the end of the year.12

The 200 warheads will exclude "missile warheads held as a necessary processing margin or for technical surveillance purposes".13

Each UK Trident submarine can carry up to 16 Trident II D5 missiles, which are manufactured and serviced in the United States. The UK's atomic weapons establishment produces the warheads for Trident. They are closely based on the design of the US Trident warhead, W76, with a yield of approximately 100 kilotons.14

The number of Trident II D5 missiles that the UK will purchase from the US was also reduced in the Defence Review to 58. The UK's earlier planning assumption, inherited from the previous government, was that in addition to the 51 missiles already purchased, it would buy a further seven missiles in FY1998 and seven in FY1999, bringing the total to 65. The Government proceeded with the first order of seven missiles for FY1998, but announced that the 58 missiles thus purchased "are sufficient to maintain a credible deterrent".15 Of those, six have already been test-fired, there are plans for eight more tests, and four are set aside for a processing margin, leaving only 40 missiles for deployment.16

As part of the Defence Review, the Government stated that it would maintain the capacity to produce a follow-on to the Trident nuclear programme, noting "it would be premature to abandon a minimum capability to design and produce a successor to Trident should this prove necessary".17 This allows for producing a new nuclear warhead, one that would have to be produced without nuclear testing. The UK would probably need to increase co-operation with the French and US stockpile stewardship programmes to achieve this goal. (See Chapter Four on nuclear co-ooperation on p. 24 below.)


2.2. Nuclear Doctrine

The UK's Trident submarines are assigned to NATO to be used for the defence of the Alliance "except where the UK government may decide that supreme national interests are at stake".18 Trident was originally intended to provide the UK with an independent strategic nuclear capability to deter the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, the previous Government adapted Trident's rationale to deterring a "potential aggressor" from threatening British "vital interests".

With the withdrawal of the UK's WE-177 free-fall bombs, Trident was also assigned a "sub-strategic" nuclear role, defined as the capability to carry out a "more limited nuclear strike".19 According to the Defence Review, this limited strike "would not lead to a full-scale nuclear exchange".20

The new Labour Government affirmed that it fully supports "NATO policy on the continuing requirement for a sub-strategic capability as a crucial element of credible deterrence. In extreme circumstances of self-defence, such a capability would allow the limited use of nuclear weapons to send an aggressor a political message of the Alliance's resolve to defend itself".21 Such an aggressor could be Russia or a hostile state with access to WMD.

Perceived Threats from WMD

Like the US and NATO, in recent years the UK has placed greater emphasis on deterring potential proliferators of WMD as a rationale for retaining nuclear weapons.22 In 1993, Secretary of State for Defence Malcolm Rifkind posed the question: "Would . . . the possible use of chemical or biological weapons against us be seen as justifying the threat of our nuclear weapons?". Rifkind's answer was to emphasise that the UK provided its negative security assurances (NSAs) in a context in which "we attach ever increasing importance to the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions".23

British policy on the use of nuclear weapons to deter proliferators of WMD remains ambiguous. Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Dr John Reid, described the new Government's approach to the threat of WMD and ballistic missile proliferation:

The role of deterrence... must not be overlooked. Even if a potential aggressor has developed missiles with the range to strike at the United Kingdom, and nuclear, biological or chemical warheads to be delivered by those means, he would have to consider - he would do well to consider - the possible consequences of such an attack... It seems unlikely that a dictator who was willing to strike another country with weapons of mass destruction would be so trusting as to feel entirely sure that that country would not respond with the power at its disposal.24

Even more recently, when asked in the House of Lords about nuclear retaliation "in the case of aggressor states contemplating the use of chemical and biological weapons", Lord Hoyle responded for the Government:

The use of chemical or biological weapons by any state would be a grave breach of international law. A state which chose to use chemical or biological weapons against the United Kingdom should expect us to exercise our right of self defence and to make a proportionate response.25

These statements move UK policy towards US doctrine, although it appears that the UK is creating a distinction that the US does not, between the use of chemical or biological weapons and their possession.26

This policy appears to contradict the negative security assurances (NSAs) stated in the Defence Review, that the UK,

will not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state not in material breach of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations, unless it attacks us, our Allies or a state to which we have a security commitment, in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state.27

The UK issued a similar assurance in 1995, during the run-up to the NPT Conference. France, Russia, and the United States issued almost identical declarations, whereas China reiterated its pledge never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states. The assurance was part of the West's successful effort to make the NPT permanent.


2.3. Alert status

The Defence Review announced some changes in the operational posture of the Trident submarine force:

The new strategic environment also enables us to maintain our nuclear forces at reduced readiness:

- only one Trident submarine is on deterrent patrol at any time;
- the submarines are routinely at a "notice to fire" measured in days rather than the few minutes' quick reaction alert sustained throughout the Cold War. Their missiles are de-targeted;
- submarines on patrol will carry out a variety of secondary tasks, without compromising their security, including hydrographic data collection, equipment trials and exercises with other vessels;
- over time we plan to reduce from double to single crews for each submarine, reflecting reduced operational tempo.28

The first point is not a change from previous operating procedure. In fact, until recently only two Tridents were available. With necessary maintenance time, it was impossible to maintain more than one on patrol. The four-boat Trident fleet is intended to ensure that the UK "can maintain continuous patrols and a continuously-available sub-strategic capability throughout the life of the Trident force".29 With four submarines, the UK can retain three submarines in the operational patrol cycle even when one is in refit or out of service. This capability could allow the UK to maintain two boats on patrol much of the time if it so chose (although it rarely if ever has done so in the past). In this sense, the UK is intentionally restricting its capability by limiting patrols to one. At the same time, this policy does not preclude the UK from deploying another Trident for something other than deterrent patrol.

The second point could have important implications for all nuclear forces globally, but the lack of details about the "notice to fire" status leaves open important questions. Most importantly, UK officials have stated that this status will not be verifiable. It is also unclear if this is an entirely new policy. Before the release of the Defence Review, the Government said that there has not been "any change in the UK's policy of maintaining continuous deterrent patrols" since the election. It added that submarines on patrol are "at a reduced alert state reflecting improved strategic conditions".30

Keeping one crew for each submarine will reduce the operating costs of Trident. It reflects the decreased need for maintaining the high levels of alert typical in the post-Cold War era.

The previous government took other steps on alert status. Following a bilateral agreement between the UK and Russia in 1994, UK nuclear weapons are no longer targeted at any country.31 However it is possible "quickly to restore operational targets to the missiles should the need arise".32

As part of Defence Review, the UK rejected other de-alerting steps, such as removing warheads from missiles. Baroness Symons informed the House of Lords of the UK position on this issue:

We believe that to detach warheads from missiles would be impractical...because of the nature of our deterrent. As Trident is a single submarine-based system, there would be significant difficulties in detaching our warheads from missiles while maintaining the credible deterrent to which Her Majesty's Government are committed...33


2.4. Fissile Materials

As part of the Defence Review, the UK Government increased the level of information it provides about stocks of fissile materials and, for the first time, placed materials under international safeguards. Claiming to be the first nuclear-weapon state to do so, the Defence Review reported that the total fissile stocks for the UK included:

- 7.6 tonnes of plutonium;
- 21.9 tonnes of highly enriched uranium; and
- 15,000 tonnes of other forms of uranium.

Much of this stock is no longer required for defence purposes, and 4.4 tonnes of plutonium, including 0.3 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium, and over 9,000 tonnes of non-highly enriched uranium will now be placed under European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) safeguards, and made liable to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).34

Russia and the United States have already made some of their fissile stocks liable to IAEA inspection.


2.5. New Labour in Government

Since the overwhelming election victory of Tony Blair's New Labour Party on 1 May 1997, a number of trends in Labour's thinking on defence have become apparent. Most importantly, the Blair government has been keen to align itself with the Clinton Administration. The UK has always regarded its "special relationship" with the US as providing increased status for the UK in international affairs.

The Blair government has already shown itself to be one of the Clinton Administration's strongest supporters on defence matters. In the run up to NATO's Madrid summit in July 1997, the UK was the most enthusiastic supporter of the US position on admitting only the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary in the first round of NATO enlargement. Likewise, the UK has been the strongest supporter of the Clinton Administration's stance on the use of force against Iraq.

The New Government and Nuclear Weapons

The Labour Government came to power on a platform committed to retaining Trident, but also to pressing for "multilateral negotiations towards mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons". The Labour Party Manifesto continues, "when satisfied with verified progress towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons, we will ensure that British nuclear weapons are included in multilateral negotiations".35 This statement is repeated in the Defence Review and elsewhere.

The Government has yet to publish any more specific plans for its implementation. In fact, the Defence Review makes clear the UK Government belief that it has done all it can or should:

Our own arsenal, following the further reductions described above, is the minimum necessary to provide for our security for the foreseeable future and very much smaller than those of the major nuclear powers. Considerable further reductions in the latter would be needed before further British reductions could become feasible.36


2.6. Labour Party Policies and the Strategic Defence Review

Before the 1996 election, the Labour Party published its policies on defence and security in A Fresh Start for Britain: Labour's Strategy for Britain in the Modern World. The document stated:

We...want to see a new commitment to transparency by the nuclear weapon states. As a starting point the nuclear weapon states should declare their existing inventories of plutonium and highly enriched uranium to the IAEA, and open to inspection their nuclear production facilities.

Labour in government will work for:

  • a freeze on nuclear warhead numbers. As a first step we will ensure that Trident carries no more warheads than Polaris.
  • an internationally verifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a negotiated Fissile Material Cut-Off Convention.
  • a negotiated, multilateral no first use agreement amongst the nuclear weapons states and strengthened security assurances to non-nuclear weapon states in the form of an international legally-binding treaty.
  • further international measures to assist the countries of the former Soviet Union with the dismantling of their nuclear weapons and to improve safety standards at their nuclear bases and civil nuclear power stations.37

A Fresh Start for Britain followed an earlier statement by Robin Cook, when he was Shadow Foreign Secretary, which included a ten-point programme "that a Labour Government would have taken to New York" for the NPT Conference of 1995. In addition to the points contained in A Fresh Start for Britain, the ten-point programme advocated:

  • A nuclear weapons register. The nuclear weapons states should declare their holdings on a verifiable Nuclear Weapons Register under the auspices of the United Nations...
  • Respect for nuclear weapons-free zones. Regional nuclear weapons-free zones established by international agreement should be respected by the nuclear weapons states in peacetime... Our security interests are served by encouraging their development, not flouting them.
  • Regular disarmament reports to the United Nations. In order to sustain the momentum for disarmament, each of the nuclear weapons states should be obliged to lodge regular reports with the UN Secretary-General outlining what steps they have taken to fulfil their obligations under Article VI.38

The Defence Review addressed many of these issues, but largely ignored others. Although the Defence Review was intended to be "foreign policy led", the process was similar to previous British defence reviews, with first drafts being prepared by Ministry of Defence (MoD) civil servants. Initially, the Defence Review sought to establish a "policy baseline", looking first at the UK's commitments and interests as a country, in Europe, and then more widely, in order to reassess essential security interests and defence needs.39 The Defence Review then examined possible missions for British forces, military tasks, future force structures and capabilities, procurement, and a wide range of efficiency-related issues.40

The Defence Review did increase British transparency about its nuclear stocks. However, while reprocessing of spent fuel from defence reactors at Chapelcross will be under safeguards and liable to international inspection, other defence nuclear facilities "will remain outside international supervision".41 Furthermore, the Government reserved the right to conduct future reprocessing outside safeguards until agreement is reached on a fissile material cut-off.42 It also pointed out that maintaining "a degree of uncertainty about our precise capabilities is a necessary element of credible deterrence".43

To meet its pledge to "ensure that Trident carries no more warheads than Polaris", the Government cut the number of warheads on Trident to 48 per submarine. While Polaris was originally deployed with 48 warheads, a later version, Chevaline, carried only 32.44 More importantly, this cut does not take into account the fact that the two or three warheads on each Polaris missile could only hit one target. In addition to far greater range and substantially increased accuracy, each warhead on Trident is independently targetable. Rather than hitting just 16 targets with 16 missiles, as Polaris could do, Trident can hit 48.

Since the election, the UK moved quickly to ratify the CTBT, and together with France deposited its instruments of ratification on 6 April 1998. There has been no progress on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Convention.

Perhaps the biggest failure in the Defence Review was the lack of mention of no-first-use. While existing negative security assurances provided by the UK are described, no-first-use is not discussed. UK officials have confirmed that a no-first-use policy was considered during the Review, but set aside, at least for the present. The probable explanation is two-fold. First, there may have been internal opposition, particularly within the Ministry of Defence. Second, the UK would face strong resistance from some NATO allies, in particular the US and France. As British nuclear weapons are committed to NATO, it is difficult for the government to endorse publicly a policy that the Alliance currently rejects.

Little if any mention is made of efforts to assist Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union in dismantling their nuclear arsenals, although mention is made of considering whether the UK "can assist Russia in dismantling the vast stocks of chemical weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union".45

There is no discussion of a nuclear weapons register in the Defence Review, or of reports to the UN on steps to fulfil the commitments under Article VI of the NPT on nuclear disarmament. While support for nuclear-weapon-free zones is included, no changes are made to previous policy.46


2.7. UK Stance on Disarmament at the UN

The new Government has only made marginal changes on its stance on disarmament at the UN. At the UN First Committee in November 1997 and again in 1998, the UK voted against a resolution from Malaysia endorsing the "Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear weapons". However, unlike its predecessor, the new Government both times abstained on (rather than opposed) Operative Paragraph 1 of the resolution, which underlined,

the unanimous conclusion of the International Court of Justice that there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.47

Following the vote in 1997, UK Ambassador Ian Soutar explained the UK position:

We welcome the recognition of the importance of obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, including the nuclear weapons states' obligations on nuclear disarmament, by the International Court of Justice's Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. But given that the draft resolution contains highly selective quotations from the Court's Advisory Opinion, the United Kingdom will abstain from operative paragraph 1 of draft resolution L.37.48

The US and France, along with Russia, Israel, and Monaco, voted against the paragraph. Turkey abstained, while the remaining NATO countries voted in favour.

The new UK Government has distinguished itself from its predecessor by welcoming the International Court of Justice's (ICJ's) ruling on the nuclear-weapon states obligations on nuclear disarmament. However, the Government also states that,

the ICJ opinion does not require a change in the United Kingdom's entirely defensive deterrence policy. We would only ever consider the use of nuclear weapons in the extreme circumstance of self-defence which includes the defence of our NATO allies. The court was unable to conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence in which the very survival of the state would be at stake.49

Operative Paragraph 2 of the 1997 resolution called on all states to fulfil the obligation to nuclear disarmament by,

commencing multilateral negotiations in 1998 leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear-weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination.50

The UK voted against this paragraph and the resolution as a whole because of the "selective" quotations from the Court's Advisory Opinion and "on account of the unrealistic call, in operative paragraph 2, for multilateral negotiations in 1998 leading to an early conclusion of a Nuclear Weapons Convention".51 In this case, NATO countries and Russia were firmly opposed, although EU members Ireland, Sweden, and Finland abstained. Like its predecessor, the new UK Government seems likely to support the nuclear-weapon states' line against multilateral negotiations, despite its own policy statements indicating support for the multilateral nuclear disarmament process.

The UK also voted against a resolution from Egypt that called for the principle of transparency (as in the UN Register of conventional arms) to be applied to weapons of mass destruction. The resolution requested,

the Secretary-General to seek the views of Member States on ways and means of enhancing transparency in the fields of weapons of mass destruction and transfers of equipment and technologies directly related to the development and manufacture of such weapons...52

This vote indicates that although the UK has stated that it is considering greater transparency on nuclear warhead numbers in its Strategic Defence Review, the prospects for UK support for a nuclear weapons register are not good.

Finally, as described in Chapter 1.3 above, in 1998, the UK not only voted against the Irish-led New Agenda Coalition resolution at the First Committee on nuclear disarmament, but it lobbied other states to vote "no" as well.


2.8. Conclusion

Although the election of a Labour Government in the UK suggested the possibility of progress on a range of nuclear disarmament issues, the new Government's approach has been similar in practice to that of the previous government. The Strategic Defence Review made important but not astonishing changes in British nuclear posture and doctrine. The Defence Reviews steps on transparency and safeguarding fissile materials deserve praise, and the reductions in arsenal are a significant step in the right direction. Yet the UK's stance on disarmament issues in the UN First Committee and the CD has not changed as much as the Labour Party's pre-election statements suggested they would. Nor does the Defence Review even begin to deal with the implications of India and Pakistan's nuclear tests.

The current Government wishes to be seen as "strong on defence" and is still concerned to distance itself from Labour's earlier "unilateralist" policies. The reduction to only one nuclear system is an important step, but one decided by the previous government. Labour policy on retaining Trident has taken precedence over its historical support for nuclear disarmament. The UK is also keen to position itself as a key US ally and supporter of NATO, reiterating its support for NATO nuclear policies.

The UK can make significant contributions to the nuclear arms control process. Measures to reduce the alert status of Trident missiles are worthy of merit, yet need verifiability to make them truly appreciable. Officials have said the UK will not push the no-first-use issue, but it is unclear if that decision will change in light of the new German position. (See Chapter 6.4 on p. 46.) Any significant progress in disarmament will depend on the willingness of Labour Ministers to pursue these policies despite opposition from civil servants and pressure from the Defence Ministries of other NATO members, in particular the United States.

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