Britain’s Continuous at Sea Deterrent: Flawed Arguments by Disarmament Doves and Deterrence Hawks

There are flaws on both sides of the debate over the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent.

Last Friday, a service was held at Westminster Abbey to honour a ‘debt of gratitude’ and offer ‘sincere thanks’ for 50 years of the Royal Navy’s continuous at sea deterrent (CASD), a nuclear posture that requires at least one nuclear armed submarine to be on patrol at all times. About 200 protesters gathered outside expressing familiar moral and practical objections. But it was in a recent House of Commons debate on CASD that some of the current areas of contention between deterrence hawks and disarmament doves received their proper airing.

On 10 April, then Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson put forward a motion that, ‘this House has considered the 50th anniversary of the continuous at sea deterrent’. In his opening remarks, Williamson stated, ‘Today it is for the House to pay tribute to those brave men and women, past and present, who have helped to make this operation so successful’. The motion was carried by a 7-to-1 landslide, of 241 ayes to 33 noes. Nevertheless, three arguments advanced during the debate stand out, if only due to their remarkable weakness. One of these arguments was advanced by Gavin Williamson himself, and the other two by the emerging leader of the disarmament doves, Green MP Caroline Lucas.

Williamson stated that, ‘The investments we have made and the decisions that we have taken on extra investment on Dreadnought mean that the new submarines will be delivered on time’. Unfortunately, just because the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is making sufficient inputs, that does not necessarily mean timely outputs will follow. For example, £634 million was approved in 2011 to replace the highly enriched uranium manufacturing and storage facility at the Atomic Weapons Establishment. Construction started in August 2013 and stopped prematurely in March 2015, with the project subsequently suspended without any discernible outputs.

Furthermore, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) – the government’s centre of expertise for major public undertakings – has no confidence in the successful delivery of the MoD’s Core Production Capability project, which is supposed to deliver ‘safe nuclear reactor cores to meet the Royal Navy's submarine programme’. The nuclear reactor for Dreadnought, known as Pressurised Water Reactor 3 (PWR-3), will also be built without a prototype being tested first. The IPA also states that the successful delivery of Dreadnought is in doubt, with ‘major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas’. For the fourth year in a row, ‘urgent action is needed to address these problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible’.

Any delays to Dreadnought will place increased strain on the ageing Vanguard fleet. As opposition Labour MP Kevan Jones noted:

One threat that I do see to CASD … is the decision in 2010 to delay the replacement of the nuclear deterrent. That has had huge issues for the maintenance of CASD. It means that the life of our present Vanguard submarines will be extended way beyond what was designed.

He is right to be concerned that the UK may accidentally break CASD. It is by no means certain that it will be possible to keep a Vanguard permanently on patrol until relieved by Dreadnought. The accidental loss of an assured second-strike capability is inherently risky. Against this background, Williamson’s assertions should be seen as rhetorical, not predictive.

Hopefully defence companies and the MoD will rise to the challenge and grapple with the deep, systemic problems plaguing the Defence Nuclear Enterprise. The yearly metrics of success and failure are the annual IPA confidence assessments for nuclear projects. We will all be able to see whether projects move from being designated as at risk of not meeting objectives towards a more positive rating.

Meanwhile, on the disarmament doves side of the debate, Lucas argued that nuclear weapons can be uninvented, citing the chemical weapons and cluster munitions ban treaties as examples. According to International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty is modelled on several earlier ban treaties, including the chemical weapons ban and the cluster munitions ban.

The problem with Lucas’s argument is that the chemical weapons ban did not create a world free of chemical weapons. Chemical weapons were used in Syria by the Syrian regime and Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), both before and after the Syrian regime ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention which bans such weapons. Russia tried in 2018 to assassinate retired double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury with Novichok, a chemical weapon, despite Russia’s ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. And in 2017, North Korea successfully assassinated Kim Jong-nam, the current leader’s half-brother, with VX, a chemical weapon. Nor did the cluster munitions ban create a world free of cluster munitions. Russia has used cluster munitions during the Syrian Civil War and Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions in Yemen.

Since neither the chemical weapons ban nor the cluster munitions ban resulted in a world free of either weapons, there seems to be no convincing reason to believe that a nuclear weapons ban would result in a world free of nuclear weapons.

Lucas also raised twice during the parliamentary debate the question of what moral high ground allows the UK to upgrade nuclear weapons while lecturing other countries not to acquire them. Answers were not short in coming: the right to nuclear weapons under the Non-Proliferation Treaty; the duty to protect NATO allies; and the UK’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. That last point warrants exploration.

Lucas claims the Nuclear Ban Treaty has moral authority because it was voted for by the UN General Assembly, with the support of 122 countries, notwithstanding the fact that resolutions of the General Assembly are not binding. However, the UN is also the source of the UK’s authority to lecture other countries about non-proliferation.

According to Article 24 of the UN Charter, the foundational treaty of the UN:

In order to ensure prompt and effective action by the United Nations, its Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf.

This effectively gives the UK not just the right to lecture other countries, but a duty to do so, provided such lectures are in line with Security Council resolutions. And there is no shortage of resolutions such as Resolution 1696 on Iran’s nuclear programme, or Resolution 1718 on North Korea’s nuclear programme.

It is not possible to deny the UK’s moral high ground to lecture other countries about nuclear non-proliferation without also denying the moral authority of the UN, and therefore denying the moral authority of the UN Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty.

Still, and as was illustrated by last Friday’s church service to recognise CASD and by the protests it generated, deterrence hawks and disarmament doves will continue to argue about the UK’s nuclear arsenal. Yet, if we are doomed to have to listen to this debate forever, the least we should expect is that the people indulging in this debate pay more attention to the quality of the arguments they are making.

Sam Dudin is a UK Nuclear Policy Research Fellow at RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


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