The United Kingdom’s nuclear renewal

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Reasons for and against the United Kingdom’s nuclear renewal

By Paul Beaumont

The UK membership in the nuclear club is up for renewal, and – not for the first time – finding a convincing raison d’étre and the money to pay for it is proving difficult.

Nuclear weapons have always been contentious in British politics, particularly within the Labour party. During the cold war Labour fluctuated between reluctant support and policies advocating complete scrapping of the British nuclear arsenal. The most controversial moments have occurred when the nuclear weapons are up for renewal. Even so, every government since the first British nuclear test in 1952 eventually found the will and the way to finance new weapons rather than risking the political ramifications of disarmament.

As the existing nuclear weapon system, Trident, is approaching the end of its expected lifetime, the controversy has once again reached the attention of the public.

As the existing nuclear weapon system, Trident, is approaching the end of its expected lifetime, the controversy has once again reached the attention of the public. Since 2006 the debate has been going in the UK on whether to opt for a ‘like-for-like’ replacement,  scrap it, or to find a middle way. At 25 billion to procure and with estimated lifetime costs of more than 80 billion, renewing Trident appears to many as an expensive, useless, irrelevant luxury. For others, nuclear weapons remain Britain’s ‘ultimate insurance‘ against the uncertainties of the future.

The US-built Trident was commissioned in 1982 and was one of the most advanced submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) systems available. Each missile can fit eight nuclear warheads and has a range of around 11,000 km. Four Vanguard-class submarines each carry 16 missiles, and at least one of the four submarines remains on patrol at all times. This is part of a doctrine called Continuous-At-Sea-Deterrence (CASD). During the Cold War CASD was considered necessary to ensure that the UK could inflict “unbearable damage” on the Soviet Union in the event of a surprise attack. However, due to the long procurement period, the first Trident-armed submarine did not roll off the dockyard until 1992, perfectly coinciding with the end of the Cold War.

A Trident submarine leaving its base on the Clyde. The village of Strone is visible in the background (Creative Commons).

A Trident submarine leaving its base on the Clyde. The village of Strone is visible in the background (Creative Commons).

Today, more than 20 years later, the Trident-armed submarines continue to patrol the high seas, though without a specified target and in an international political climate quite different from the one in which UK last decided to renew its nuclear weapons programme.

A growing majority of the public and increasingly members of the military argue that the UK should follow the rest of the world and adopt non-nuclear security. Yet, none of the main political parties appear ready to stake their reputation on such a policy.

An updated rationale for British nuclear weapons was set out in a 2006 White Paper, and Tony Blair pushed the bill through parliament beginning the renewal process in 2007. The final decision on nuclear renewal has been delayed until after the next election expected in 2015, however the policy debate will likely be about specifications – not whether the UK should possess nuclear weapons at all. In 2013, British prime minister David Cameron stated that the UK needs a nuclear deterrent ‘more than ever’.

After the Conservative Party’s  victory in the 2015 UK General Elections, long-time nuclear abolitionist Jeremy Corbyn replaced Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party. Although Mr Corbyn’s preference of discontinuing Trident is still a minority position within Labour, Corbyn’s election has provided optimism within the UK anti-nuclear-weapons movement. While acting as Labour leader, Corbyn will assume the position of Vice-President of the UK Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). The Scottish National Party (SNP) and the UK Green Party maintain their anti-Trident positions.

* Parts of this nutshell builds on “The Curious Case of British Nuclear Weapons Retention” by Paul Beaumont, International Law and Policy Institute. Read the full article here.

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