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In a major policy speech on nuclear issues, Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently suggested that Trident could be placed on the international negotiation table should there be a serious move towards multilateral disarmament. If such a gambit were to succeed, it would require something more than a leap of faith in trust.
By Dr Lee Willett, Head, Maritime Studies Programme, RUSI
In his speech to the International Fuel Cycle Conference at Lancaster House on 17 March 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown set out a number of key policy positions on a series of nuclear issues, including the Britain’s position on its independent strategic nuclear deterrent . His remarks are significant as they highlight some key developments in Britain’s nuclear force posture and in its approach to disarmament.
The British Government has a dual-track approach to its nuclear posture, seeking to retain a minimum independent strategic deterrent while actively pursuing multilateral nuclear disarmament. The Government’s December 2006 White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Independent Nuclear Deterrent, detailed Britain’s nuclear posture and also committed Britain to retaining its independent strategic nuclear deterrent – a position endorsed subsequently by a Parliamentary vote in March 2007. While committing to a fleet of either three or four ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), the White Paper also reduced Britain’s ‘operationally available warheads to less than 160’, while deploying the patrol SSBN with ‘up to 48 warheads’ on board (the 1998 Strategic Defence Review had reduced the weapons load-out to forty-eight from the previous government’s ceiling of ninety-six). The White Paper also reduced Britain’s stock of Trident D-5 missiles (SLBMs) from a planned level of 58 to 50. Overall, according to the White Paper the warhead reductions signalled a cut of nearly 50 per cent in the operationally available stockpile since 1997. When added to the reductions in the missiles and the possibility of reducing the number of SSBNs from four to three, this would constitute a unilateral reduction in all three elements of Britain’s deterrent capability. Along with the very openness of the White Paper itself, this represented a significant shift in the UK’s strategic position on its deterrent.
Brown’s Speech: Operational Implications
The Prime Minister has continued in this tradition of openness on nuclear issues by declaring a further shift, stating that Britain can maintain the capability for a minimum nuclear force with just twelve missile tubes in the successor submarine (rather than the sixteen on the current boats) and that Britain will be prepared to reduce further the number of operationally available warheads if this can be done in a manner ‘consistent with our national deterrence requirements and with the progress of multilateral [disarmament] discussion’. Such a shift has some political significance, indicating that Britain again is ready to reduce core elements of its nuclear force structure.
However, while such reductions would be welcomed, there is no evidence that they would alter the operational profile of Britain’s deterrent. Currently, Britain operates four SSBNs in a Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD) posture, a cycle in which it maintains one SSBN permanently on patrol, with three more boats rolling through the maintenance, shore leave, training and work-up cycle to prepare the next boat for patrol. As the White Paper states, the patrol boat carries up to forty-eight warheads, a force level which provides the maximum capacity required to execute any and all necessary deterrent effects as and when needed. The potential adjustments both to warhead stockpiles and to the number of missile tubes per boat will not necessarily mean a reduction in the maximum number of warheads the boat can carry. The D-5 missile can be fitted with a variable number of warheads, so the patrol boat will still be able to deploy with forty-eight warheads on only twelve missiles. Indeed, there was no mention in Gordon Brown’s speech about reducing the maximum number of warheads required from the forty-eight. Even with a reduction in the number of boats, one boat with up to forty-eight warheads will still be permanently on patrol. Arguably, therefore, it can be concluded that the operational posture of Britain’s deterrent is unchanged.
Brown’s Speech: Political Implications
Thus, the real significance of Brown’s speech is rather in its political meaning for multilateral disarmament. The speech can be viewed as the next in a series of steps taken by the British Government in the last few years. Under the White Paper, Britain did make some minor unilateral reductions in its nuclear force levels (unilateral reductions arguably not required by the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Britain is a signatory), and – while not delivering any major policy statements on multilateral disarmament – the White Paper also alluded to ongoing British efforts to work towards international arrangements for non-proliferation and disarmament. The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett’s Carnegie speech in New York in June 2007 was perhaps notable because it was clearly intended to make the world – and the United States in particular – sit up and take notice that Britain, for one, was serious about multinational disarmament. Following so soon after Britain’s decision to renew its deterrent, the speech’s timing and location was as significant as the content itself.
Mr. Brown’s well-timed speech may also have been intended to influence the emerging US debate on the issue. Nuclear disarmament stalled under the Bush Administration. Now, as standing strategic arms control treaties are due to expire at the end of this year, the Obama Administration has moved quickly to re-start the disarmament process. With President Obama seeking to invite Russia to recommence bilateral talks, and with the NPT up for review next year, Brown has taken the opportunity to place Britain at the political forefront of ‘the international campaign to prevent nuclear proliferation and to accelerate multilateral nuclear disarmament’.
Stating that ‘the power of common purpose’ and ‘the power of international co-operation’ can enable nations to aspire collectively to practical means to achieve the ‘previously unthinkable’ end of global nuclear disarmament, Brown argued that ‘we must reshape the international architecture that deals with proliferation in a global society’. In referring repeatedly to a global society, Brown may have been attempting to limit international fractures caused by the collapse of the global economic system and to offset the inherent risk that this would result in increased economic and political protectionism amongst nations. Brown may have been trying to take a central position as a means of improving Government credibility at a time of economic difficulty and in the build-up to a General Election. However, specifically in terms of nuclear politics, some argue that the speech was designed to re-establish the credibility of Britain’s position with regard to non-proliferation – credibility which may have been damaged by the decision to renew the deterrent. There is a clear desire within Government to show committed resolve on this issue: one Downing Street official remarked that Britain is ‘not just paying lip service’ to the issue and, if Britain wants to energise multinational disarmament, it needs to take an open position on its own nuclear deterrent. Notwithstanding the White Paper’s unilateral steps, Brown stated that Britain will make further reductions only when ‘it becomes useful for our arsenal to be included in a broader [multinational] negotiation’.
Some have suggested that Britain is showing greater willingness to put Trident up for discussion on the international negotiating table. Offering Trident may, however, not be the end the UK Government has in mind. It is, instead, the means to a greater end. In the White Paper, stating that ‘we maintain our nuclear forces as a means of deterring acts of aggression against our vital interests and not for reasons of status’, the Government explicitly refutes the argument that the possession of nuclear weapons brings international prestige and influence. Indeed, it would be implausible for the Government to argue in a public document that international status and influence were factors in maintaining a nuclear deterrent capability. Yet this public dismissal of status and influence as reasons for maintaining a deterrent is open to debate. Indeed, Britain’s own nuclear capability seems to be precisely the tool Brown is using to create the political momentum necessary to stimulate both the development of new disarmament frameworks and reductions in global nuclear weapons levels.
Noting that the world faces increased risks in a nuclear era of ‘new state and perhaps even non-state nuclear weapon holders’, Mr. Brown even took the opportunity to use the speech to exercise the rhetoric of deterrence. As recent reports suggest, Iran may be continuing to defy the international community as it pursues its own nuclear programme and may possess already enough fissile material to produce one warhead – although Iran continues to state that its nuclear programme is not a weapons programme. Mr. Brown exhibited a dual-track, carrot-and-stick approach. In his speech he declared that ‘Iran’s current nuclear programme is unacceptable’, although he echoed President Obama’s hope that Tehran would take advantage of the international community’s willingness to negotiate. Addressing the risk that third parties – notably terrorist organisations – might acquire and use nuclear weapons, Brown asserted that established fissile material science will allow the tracing of a particular weapon back to the state responsible for supplying the weapons.
Achieving Brown’s Grand Global Bargain?
There is a presumption that, in particular circumstances, only nuclear weapons can deter the use of a nuclear weapon. A central part of Brown’s thesis was the need to remove nuclear weapons in their entirety from the global security equation. The Prime Minister noted that the knowledge of how to produce nuclear weapons exists and is accessible. He claimed also that he knows that the Obama Administration ‘shares ... the ultimate ambition of a world free from nuclear weapons’. Yet it is hard to imagine the US agreeing to eliminate its nuclear forces when others remain susceptible to the allure of the supreme political and military power and influence offered by the possession of nuclear weapons. Achieving, maintaining and, especially, verifying a zero global force level will need to be based on something a little more robust than trust.
Brown argued that countries needed the confidence to ‘refuse to take up nuclear weapons in the knowledge that they will never be required’. This does not, however, account for both the weapons and the knowledge that already exist.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
1. The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent. Command 6994. Presented to Parliament by The Secretary of State for Defence and The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, by Command of Her Majesty. December 2006. Norwich: The Stationery Office (TSO). Despite a controversial debate in Parliament, in the press and in public fora, the motion to retain Britain’s deterrent was carried by 409 votes to 161.
2. For reference, see Ibid.. pp.12-13, incl. Box 2-1. See also MoD (1998). The Strategic Defence Review. Command 399. Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Defence, by Command of Her Majesty. July 1998. London: The Stationery Office (TSO). p.19, para.67. Formally, SSBN stands for Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear and SLBM stands for Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile.
3. Britain’s CASD cycle has remained unbroken for over 40 years and for over 300 deterrent patrols. It should not be assumed that the cycle was broken by the February 2009 collision between the British SSBN HMS VANGUARD and the French SSBN Le Triomphant, as there is no evidence to suggest that VANGUARD was on patrol at the time. The White Paper committed Britain to a review of the number of boats required to sustain the CASD cycle, with previous Secretary of State for Defence the Rt. Hon Des Browne MP telling the House of Commons Defence Committee in 2007 that a reduction to three boats was the Government’s ‘ambition’. However, the VANGUARD collision shows the inherent risk in maintaining something as significant as Britain’s independent strategic nuclear deterrent with a reducing number of boats. Des Browne also stated, at RUSI in March 2007, that the deterrent was not something to ‘play around’ with (for discussion, see Lee Willett, ‘Accident Shows Risks of Just Three Future UK SSBNs’, in Warships International Fleet Review, April 2009. p.5).
4. Ibid., for example Fact Sheet 2. Article VI of the NPT requires signatories only to undertake ‘to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.’ The British Government argues also that the NPT recognises – and, thus, legitimises – Britain’s status as a nuclear weapons state (see, MoD & FCO. The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, for example Fact Sheet 3).
5. Julian Borger, ‘Gordon Brown Has Put Trident on the Table’, The Guardian, 17th March 2009. Available on-line at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/mar/17/brown-trident-analysis. Accessed 18th March 2009.
7. MoD & FCO. The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent. p.20, Box 3-1).
8. See, for example, Michael Codner, Gavin Ireland and Lee Willett. The United Kingdom’s Independent Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: Observations on the 2006 White Paper and Issues for the Parliamentary Debate. Whitehall Report 1-07. London: RUSI. p.12.
9. ‘Brown Issues Iran Nuclear Warning’, available on-line at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7947285.stm , accessed 18th March 2009, and Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael G. Mullen United States Navy (Statement on Fox News Sunday, cited in Steven R. Hurst, Associated Press, 1st March 2009).