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Renewing Britain’s Independent Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: A Debate

Commentary, 13 March 2007
Defence Policy, Global Security Issues, Maritime Forces, Europe
Conference report on the 7 March 2007 proceedings at RUSI. The debate was led by Des Browne, Michael Codner, Steven Haines, and Paul Ingram.

Listen to the proceedings (Media Player)

During the consultation period for and in the build up to a Parliamentary debate and vote on 14 March 2007, the Royal United Services Institute hosted a debate on the Government’s proposal to retain Britain’s position as a nuclear power by renewing Britain’s independent strategic nuclear deterrent. The debate also saw the release of a RUSI Whitehall Report on the subject, titled ‘The United Kingdom’s Independent Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: Observations on the 2006 White Paper and Issues for the Parliamentary Debate’. The purpose of the RUSI debate was to provide a forum, in the run-up to the Parliamentary vote, for the discussion of issues central to the Government’s proposal.

The debate was led by panellists Michael Codner (RUSI’s Director of Military Sciences), Paul Ingram (Senior Analyst, British American Security Information Council), Professor Steven Haines (Professor of Strategy and the Law of Military Operations at Royal Holloway College) and the Rt Hon Des Browne MP (Britain’s Secretary of State for Defence). Participants on the floor included representatives from a wide variety of stakeholders in this particular debate, including political parties, media and non-Government organizations, as well as representatives from industry, the Ministry of Defence and other Government Departments.

This short summary sets out key points raised during the RUSI debate. It will not attempt to analyze them (although an article scheduled for publication in the April 2007 issue of RUSI’s Newsbrief will provide some analysis of the discussions, alongside an assessment of the implications of the forthcoming Parliamentary debate and vote).

Reasons for Retaining Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent

RUSI’s report argued that nuclear weapons remain principally an instrument for relations between states. Professor Haines maintained that there is a moral imperative for the possession of nuclear weapons, especially as the future course of the world’s balance of power remains unpredictable, and he added that nuclear states have a fundamental role to play in the process of international diplomacy in the international system as it continues to develop. Reflecting the views of some of the audience, Professor Haines argued that nuclear weapons have played a part in preventing war, although this could not be proved for certain and, moreover, other factors like the input of diplomats, the influence of the United Nations, and the spread of globalization may equally have played a part in convincing major states that major war between them would be unwise.

Des Browne argued that the decision to renew the deterrent was ‘one of the biggest decisions that we as a Government [has] had to take’. He went further to add that:

'It is the duty of Government to protect the country in an uncertain world ... But it is not just about uncertainty. We also have to consider first the fact that the number of countries with nuclear weapons is growing, second that several countries that have nuclear weapons or are trying to acquire them are in regions where instability may well increase, and finally consider the possibility of the re-emergence of a direct nuclear threat to the United Kingdom from existing nuclear-armed states. And I think it is critical to realise that national intentions – that is, the re-emergence of a direct nuclear threat to the United Kingdom – could change faster [than our ability to] re-acquire a nuclear capability if we got rid of our nuclear deterrent. … In the face of this, we have to ask ourselves are we prepared to live in a world in which stable, open and democratic countries like ours have let our deterrents lapse, while aggressive or extremist regimes with a nuclear deterrent can threaten the rest of the world or hold it to ransom? I am not prepared to take this risk.’

The discussions did not focus strongly on how Britain’s deterrent strategy is perceived to work in theory and practice. For example, Sir Michael Quinlan, formerly Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, pointed out to the panel some issues relating to the role of ‘ambiguity’ – the decision not to confirm the possible circumstances in which Britain might wish to exercise deterrence, and how Britain might do this – in Britain’s declaratory policy. He argued that:

'There are two sorts of reasons for reducing the ambiguity. One is to improve deterrence, and frankly I don’t think there is anything in that. The other though is reassurance to our own people, and that is moral reassurance. In the 1980 Trident Open Government document, we said that our idea was to hold under threat key aspects of Soviet state power, and I can tell you with a certain authority that that was meant to convey not counter population, not counter city and that it was in there for ethical reasons. I wonder whether the Government could not say at least that again?’

Michael Codner concurred that greater information on declaratory policy would assist a balanced debate. Stating that while Britain’s deterrent may not be relevant in some circumstances whereas, when it comes to the problem of other states constraining British behaviour, clearly it still is, one of the problems in understanding the British position has been with a declaratory policy which has progressively become weaker. He argued that:

‘This does raise questions – in particular for a Labour Government – about its actual commitment. Things have changed somewhat with the White Paper, but we certainly need information about counter force and counter proliferation. That is an important element. While the Government probably cannot say a great deal about why we need so many missiles continuously at sea, certainly for the purpose of the debate we need to ask the question what is the benchmark for this number of missiles. … These are issues that for the debate do need to be discussed, how many missiles and what would they actually be for if they actually had to be used.’

Reinforcing arguments made in RUSI’s paper, Michael Codner stated that it was difficult to ‘walk away from the status and influence issue here which I think is important to the British electorate, even though it is not the sort of thing that a Government can put into a White Paper.’ In response, Des Browne maintained:

‘I would never advocate that we do this for reasons of status …. We don’t rely, for our position and our status and our relationships internationally, on the fact that we are a nuclear weapons state, and indeed are currently arguing for the top table to [be] reconfigured to represent the twenty-first century and not a post-Cold War world as it presently does.’

Why Now?

A significant portion of the discussion focused on the timing of the Government’s decision, on the one hand whether a decision was premature, and on the other hand whether a decision at this time was essential to ensure the maintenance of Britain’s deterrent policy and capability. Paul Ingram argued that delaying the decision would keep options open as well as saving money: with the submarines being designed for greater levels of operations and for a longer life than to which they were now being committed, the Government was overkeen to commit Britain to a particular course without a full discussion of the issues based on full availability of information.

Suggesting that those who opposed taking a decision now arguably had failed to provide definitive evidence to support their case, Des Browne countered that there were very concrete and practical reasons for the timing of the decision:

‘To guarantee we can maintain continuous patrols, we need to design, to manufacture, to test, and to deploy a new class of submarines by the time the existing submarines in series go out of service. Our best estimate, which has been thoroughly examined and tested and examined against American and French experience and indeed our own experience, is that the whole process will take around seventeen years. … So this is why we must take the decision now, otherwise we will effectively be committing future generations to disarmament by depriving them of the option of a credible deterrent. … The decision has to be made now and we have to take the consequences whatever they may be of whatever decision we make. We in Government are giving people more information than ever before …. rather than doing what previous governments have done, which was to develop the plans in secret and then bring them out into the public domain at the last moment. In doing so we are highlighting the consequences of the decision we face and ensuring to the best extent we can that the debate is properly informed.’

Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director of International Security Studies at RUSI, asked Paul Ingram to explain what political advantage a Labour Government might have in initiating a debate, if a decision was not considered to be an essential issue for the defence of the nation? Arguing that the replacement decision is based on a climate of fear in politics, Paul Ingram responded that there were many reasons why the Government would prefer a decision to be taken now, not least because so doing would lessen the implications for a new Labour leader:

‘Firstly, there is administrative momentum. … [Second], the life expectancy is being determined by industrial considerations, not by the needs of the Government ... . The other point is that obviously it is quite politically expedient to get this decision out of the way under a leader who is obviously going to go anyway.’

Des Browne responded that:

‘the idea that this decision will settle this issue in Labour Party politics or indeed the politics of this country I don’t think is right. And I would expect, and be disappointed of, the people of this country in future generations if they don’t revisit this issue and debate it and discuss it and look at the strategic context and see whether we need to maintain these weapons. It will always be, in my view – at least for the world that I expect and am anticipating in this process – a very difficult decision for them to make, which will be a balance of judgment. And they will be tormented by this decision because these weapons have potentially devastating consequences and we all understand that and take responsibility for that. That you can settle this in a couple of weeks and tidy it up and put it away and say “welcome the new Prime Minister you don’t have to worry about that” doesn’t seem to me to be appropriate … and somebody out there will ask him early in his [Premiership] “will he be prepared to do that” because every Prime Minister is asked that.’

A critical element of the timing of the debate centred on the life expectancy of the current VANGUARD-class submarines and the perceived timeframe to design and manufacture a replacement class of submarine. Malcolm Savidge, Parliamentary Consultant at the Oxford Research Group, argued that the Government had not clarified why the life expectancy of the VANGUARD boats appeared to have been shortened and the lead times for delivering the replacement class lengthened. Des Browne responded that:

‘The fact of the matter is that the 30 year [life expectancy], which was put into the public domain, was the 25-year planned life of these boats plus an option of an extension for five years, and that has always been the way in which the 30 year [life expectancy] has been calculated. The second point is when do you start ageing these boats? Logically, because of the nature of them, because of the propulsion system, because of the way in which they are started up in the first place, you do that at the point at which the hull and the reactor first begin operating because that is the point at which really important component parts of the boat start to age.’

The Secretary of State went on to argue that: ‘what you cannot do is avoid the experience that everybody has had of concept, design, build and commissioning of these boats and the time that it takes.’

Sir Michael Quinlan added that Britain ‘is the only recognised nuclear power which has a single system held in small numbers, and that has a bearing in how much risk one can afford to run in the perpetuation of a system’. Professor Haines argued that:

‘As soon as you get into the complexities of submarine building programmes, the technology of submarines, reactors and everything else, … the conclusion that I have reached … [is that] we need the decision now. … We cannot afford – because we have got no other system, no back up system – to plug the gap if for some reason Trident is not run on smoothly. We have to make that decision now. I am perfectly happy that that now is the case, even though at the beginning of this debate – and this is why these debates are very useful – I had some concerns about [the timing].’

As to whether the Government’s decision is final, Des Browne argued that:

‘There will be a series of decisions of course to be made between now and the new submarines coming into service. But in order to get to that point we need a firm decision now that we are committing to this process. So what the Government is doing by asking Parliament to vote on this decision next week is exposing the decision that we have to make now.’

Michael Codner argued that there are still subsequent decisions to be made after the commitment, so, effectively, the decision remains a conditional one. ‘The Government cannot say that it is a conditional decision, but it is’, not least because, Codner argued, another two General Elections will happen before the main investment decision is taken.

Maintaining Skill Sets

The Secretary of State argued that two different types of skill set were, in fact, critical to this debate. The first related to the sustainability of the defence industrial base. Critical to the timing of the decision – although not to the decision itself – is the need to have the industrial skills in place. Linda Gilroy MP, a Member of the House of Commons Defence Committee, argued that:

‘it really is rocket science when you see how these submarines are designed and maintained. [The industrial work force] want to be at that cutting edge. They are not going to hang around in some sort of virtual team waiting for some possible go-ahead to be given in the future.’

Harry Knowles, representing Keep Our Future Afloat (a trade union campaign based in Barrow-in-Furness), argued that a delay in taking the decision, and the resultant loss of skills, would generate ‘effective nuclear abolition, because we will not have the submarine platform to launch our nuclear missiles.’ Des Browne argued that ‘it has never been part of the argument that we should do this to keep jobs, but we have to understand that if we let the skills sets go in terms of construction we won’t be able to do it. It is as simple as that. We just won’t be able to do it.’

The Secretary of State argued that the second set of skills related to:

‘a group of people who we deploy and have now… [been deployed] 300 times into the sea in boats asking them to keep themselves at a high state of readiness, operationally deployed day-in and day-out, in an environment that some in here have shared but that most of us could not contemplate living in, never mind with the responsibility that we give them, day-in and day-out for three months or longer at a time. The reasons for continuing CASD is to maintain that skills-set too. … The people who have experienced that tell me “don’t play around with this: if you don’t intend to maintain this system continuously and maintain that skills set, bring them home and stop doing it, because you cannot play around with this, this is a deeply dangerous thing to do.” … I am persuaded by that … Nobody else who deploys this system has any other view, and that is based on the experience of the people who have actually experienced doing the job. These people are operationally deployed. They are not out on training. They are actually out on operations.’

Maintaining the Continuous At Sea Deterrent

Lord Boyce, a former submariner, First Sea Lord and Chief of the Defence Staff, someone who is ‘an experienced submarine operator … scarred by trying to operate submarines in their later years’, asked whether the Secretary of State could confirm that extending the life of the current submarines beyond thirty years would be a high risk and would almost certainly disrupt Britain’s Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD) patrol policy. Des Browne affirmed this – noting, too, that the House of Commons Defence Committee had accepted the argument that the life-spans and operational postures of British and American submarines were not comparable because of different submarine designs and different fleet sizes:

‘The fact of the matter is that all of our experience suggests – and indeed our previous experience with previous classes of submarines suggest – that you get to the point where the level of risk is such that it becomes unsafe and extraordinarily expensive to continue to use the boats. … You can extend the life of the boats by five years, but thereafter you get into an area of unknown cost… or secondly you are at risk of operating boats that you cannot guarantee the safety of’.

Paul Ingram argued that, even if Britain was committed to maintaining its deterrent system, it should reconsider its CASD posture. Arguing that reconsidering this posture was not a point which was addressed by the White Paper, he stated that:

‘there is no reason for us to have a submarine under the sea all the time at this point in time. If the circumstances changed, then we could change our posture. But if we were to abandon CASD, that would lengthen the life expectancy of the submarines dramatically because reactors can be turned off, submarines can be mothballed and then brought out, and that would mean that we could have the current system with a dramatic saving.’

Michael Codner suggested that ‘on the subject of CASD, the White Paper makes the case pretty strongly. It is there to be challenged, but it is there as the Government view’.


The discussions dealt in some depth with the issues of controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the implications of Britain’s decision to renew its deterrent for the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and how other nations might react to this decision.

Des Browne argued that the NPT ‘does not give [Britain] … an obligation to disarm unilaterally. It gives us an obligation to resist escalation and to work toward disarmament, which is what we always have done and what we will continue to do.’ He added that Britain’s unilateral reductions put forward in the White Paper (for example, to reduce the size of its warhead stockpile) was ‘a real reduction, with warheads actually being dismantled, rather than – as some have been suggesting – an exercise in creative accounting’.

He did not support arguments that Britain’s decision to renew its deterrent would encourage other nations to seek to retain or develop nuclear weapons, or conversely that a British decision to abandon its weapons would encourage others to do the same:

‘there is no reason to believe that if, instead of maintaining our deterrent we allow it to lapse, this would make it any more likely that other countries would abandon their nuclear weapons or their ambitions to develop them … I think it is implausible to suggest that our decision will somehow have a destabilizing effect on the international system. All of the recognized nuclear powers have taken similar steps to maintain their deterrent during the NPT regime without having such effect.’

The Secretary of State added that ‘I don’t think anybody here believes that Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons because the United Kingdom has them.’ Michael Codner supported this view, stating that RUSI’s research within the international community suggested that other nations largely were unaffected by Britain’s behaviour and decisions, not least because Britain has a single system and a small force level.

Paul Ingram countered, however, that states like India and Pakistan, whilst not being influenced by Britain’s decision alone:

‘were influenced by the nuclear weapons state club, there is no doubt about that. And the more that we inside that club maintain the myth that nuclear weapons bring power and status within the international community, it will be easier for governments like India and Pakistan and, for that matter, Iran to pass by their populations the idea that this is about status and this is about pride.’

He argued further that ‘other countries are frustrated, not specifically with Britain, but with Britain alongside the other nuclear weapons states, for the lack of progress towards disarmament’ and also because of perceived hypocrisy relating to the positions of nuclear powers in retaining their own programmes whilst arguing that potential nuclear powers should terminate theirs. On this latter point, Des Browne argued that:

‘We can’t afford to forget that the 126 states who in the ‘60s sat down and agreed the NPT, recognized that there were [five] nuclear weapons states. They gave themselves a particular responsibility collectively to move towards multilateral disarmament … but [they] knew the deal they were signing up to. The other 121 of them at that time said “we will not proliferate”. So what am I asking people to do? I am asking, in terms of the NPT, I am asking them to do as we do. I am asking them please to live up to [their] legal obligations.’

The Secretary of State did note that the NPT process faced some challenges:

‘I describe the NPT and our position in it as a nuclear weapons state, politically, militarily, in terms of these multilateral organizations, as being a strange and difficult and complex alchemy, and it is. And there are some signs that it has failed: Pakistan, India, Israel, these are failures; but these are people who were out [of] the NPT in the first place. There are some signs that it has worked: South Africa, Brazil, Libya and countries that spun out of the former Soviet Union, who gave up nuclear weapons for the assurances the rest of the world gave them, are signs of success. This is not all a dreadful story. There is hope and there is possibility, and we have been in the vanguard of that. … Sometimes we have been a lone voice. Sometimes we have been saying things and other people have not been hearing properly, and sometimes … there is a possibility that we can go forward … But this is a complex, difficult, diplomatic process.’

Professor Haines argued that:

‘as an international lawyer, I do not believe the NPT is perfect, but it is all we have got at the moment and we need to run with it. ... The UK extending and maintaining and indeed reducing its capability through the decision that it is proposing to make now is not going to fuel … proliferation. As a responsible nuclear weapons state, [Britain] has a great deal to contribute to the process of managing the NPT regime: it can only do that of course as a nuclear weapons state in the way that it has been doing so far.’


Cost will be a critical factor in the progress of this debate. Michael Codner argued that the Concept and Assessment Phase, the main capability step to which the Government committed itself in the White Paper, is intended to establish and refine costs. The Secretary of State was asked whether there would likely be any opportunity costs for other areas of investment, for example conventional forces, if money is spent on nuclear weapons.

He responded that:

‘Of course there is an opportunity cost in everything we spend … Every decision that a government makes about priority spend prevents them spending something on something else. Our fundamental obligation is to provide security for this country … We have taken the view … that the strategic threat that is there or that is likely to develop requires a strategic posture of defence. If we come to that view then we have to find the money to provide that defence for the people of this country. … But it will have a cost and every penny we spend on it we will not be able to spend on something else. … On one view, the peak cost of this will be about £3 out of £1,000 of our GDP: why are we putting all the pressure upon that £3 to find other priorities? If we really have these other priorities for public spend as a country let’s put the pressure on the other £997 and re-prioritize what we spend that on, if that is what people want us to do.’

Other Issues

Professor Haines addressed the legal issue, arguing that the legal issue largely has been addressed if for no other reason than there is sufficient disagreement over the legality of possession and use of nuclear weapons. In his own view, the legality of possessing nuclear weapons for the purpose of self defence was not in question, and Britain’s decision to renew its deterrent did not contravene Article VI of the NPT. In sum, he concluded, the issue of possessing nuclear weapons largely was a political, and not a legal, issue.

Paul Ingram certainly reflected the views of many in arguing that there is a need for urgent international initiatives to develop new frameworks for a world free of nuclear weapons, with Britain possessing the ability to work jointly with the US in the cause of greater global security. Although the Government possesses a dual-track policy of maintaining a minimum deterrent whilst seeking multinational disarmament, RUSI’s debate did not clarify what measures Britain was taking – unilaterally or in consort with the US – to re-energize what arguably is a stalled multinational process.

Questions were raised concerning the enduring commitment of Britain’s deterrent to NATO. Des Browne argued that it should be remembered that ‘it is not just the UK, but NATO, that depends upon the UK retaining an independent and effective nuclear deterrent … to guarantee the overall security of the Alliance.’

Other issues raised, either by the floor or by the panel, included:

  • Whether the spread of conventional forces was just as much of a security threat as nuclear proliferation, particularly as conventional forces are far more widely used.
  • How important a factor was Britain’s need to commit, in 2007, to the US Trident D5 Life Extension (LE) missile upgrade programme? With the need to procure long-lead items driving the development of the LE programme at this time, Des Browne stated that Britain’s desire to participate in this programme was one of the elements of the proposed policy which Parliament would be debating and voting on.
  • How much does Britain’s decision require obedience to US policy?
  • Whether the British public and, more widely, Europe, would welcome a situation where France remained the only nuclear European country.
  • Whether the option of delaying the decision would send the wrong message to potential adversaries, encouraging them to develop nuclear programmes in response to perceived British political indecision and weakness?

Dr Lee Willett
Head, Maritime Studies Programme
Military Sciences Department
Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies
Whitehall London SW1A 2ET
Tel: +44 20 7747 2611


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