RUSI report highlights lingering questions surrounding proposed renewal of the United Kingdom’s Independent Nuclear Deterrent

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27 February 2007

RUSI Whitehall Report highlights lingering questions surrounding proposed renewal of the United Kingdom’s Independent Nuclear Deterrent

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Although the Government has presented a strong case advocating the renewal of the United Kingdom’s independent nuclear deterrent, there are still lingering questions that need to be addressed. This is the key finding of ‘The United Kingdom’s Independent Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: Observations on the 2006 White Paper and Issues for the Parliamentary Debate’, a new report published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Whilst there is no question that a nuclear-free world is hugely desirable, there are no clear indicators which suggest that such a world is attainable in the next forty years or so, whatever the policies of the United Kingdom. Significant nuclear arsenals remain, some are being modernised and expanded, and others developed. Nuclear weapons remain a troubling reality that can not be ignored. The UK needs to consider what sort of role it wishes to play in a world where nuclear weapons will be an enduring feature of the future.

The report argues that the proposed renewal of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent is consistent with her dual-track approach to nuclear deterrence; the purpose of which is to maintain a credible minimum capability while seeking multilateral frameworks for reducing global nuclear force levels.

Despite the end of the ‘Cold War’, there remains a real risk of major state-on-state conflict where military containment – in part enforced through a British deterrent – could re-emerge as an issue again. The most credible and cost effective nuclear deterrent on offer to the United Kingdom is a submarine platform deployed in a Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD) patrol cycle. Similarly, it is unlikely that missile defence could achieve sufficient guarantees of protection against a large-scale nuclear attack to make deterrence irrelevant.

Whilst highlighting arguments for retaining an independent nuclear deterrent, the RUSI study maintains the potential cost of the deterrent renewal is a fundamental consideration for both public and Parliamentary debate; indeed significant increases in cost may have implications for the survivability of the programme; costs which in turn may increase especially if a decision is delayed.

Findings in the RUSI report suggest the cost of deterrent renewal annually would equate to around £2.6bn, or approximately eight per cent of the current defence budget, including both the initial procurement and the through-life running and infra-structure costs. Yet, the report stresses any debate should not be determined by ‘raw costs’ alone but by ‘value delivered’ from possession of a nuclear deterrent, and the securities and influence that it brings.

The RUSI report also states any renewal of the United Kingdom’s independent nuclear deterrent could be detrimentally affected by potential future events such as: economic collapse; failures in the British expeditionary military strategy; a series of terrorist ‘spectacles’; and political developments including further substantial devolution for Scotland, raising questions about the security architecture for a new Scottish ‘entity’ and basing of submarines and their system elements.

Michael Codner, Director of Military Sciences, at the Royal United Services Institute and one of the report authors stated: “The purpose of RUSI’s response to the White Paper is not one of advocacy either for or against retention of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, but of informing the Parliamentary debate in a way that is accessible to the British electorate, whose views should be represented on the floors of the Houses of Parliament. In this way a well-informed nation should directly influence development and implementation of Government policy in this hugely important matter over the next decade.

“Although one can pick holes in the content, the White Paper is particularly comprehensive and informative, providing improved clarity in the language and understanding of Britain’s deterrent posture. Such an open approach is very different to earlier governments’ handling of the Polaris and Trident decisions, and in particular the Chevaline upgrade of Polaris.”

Dr Lee Willett, Head of Maritime Studies programme at RUSI explained: “The heart of this debate is a choice as to how the United Kingdom wishes to exist in a dangerous nuclear world. An unfortunately chauvinistic but very relevant question for a political party wishing to remain in power, or to win an election, is ‘Would the British electorate accept that France would be the only nuclear power in Western Europe?’

“The collective realities that we face today, namely global warming and the threat of international terrorism, sadly will no doubt also be challenges that our children and our children’s children encounter. The same is true of the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Put simply; these challenges are not just going to disappear overnight.

“Britain does not possess a nuclear deterrent to deter terrorist threats or stave off global warming: as the only thing that can deter a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, it possesses one to ensure that no other actor can threaten Britain with a nuclear weapon. This is the fundamental doctrine behind Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. But it is important to remember that the proposed deterrent renewal maintains a credible minimum capability to provide a foundation from which Britain – and others – should seek multilateral frameworks for reducing global nuclear force levels.”

Key questions considered by the new RUSI report include: How nuclear deterrence works in the New World Order? How relations with the United States, France and others may change? How important industrial sustainability is to the decision? How much the nuclear deterrent could cost? And what future political developments could affect the renewal of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent?



‘The United Kingdom’s Independent Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: Observations on the 2006 White Paper and Issues for the Parliamentary Debate’ is published by the Royal United Services Institute and draws on the expertise of Michael Codner, Gavin Ireland and Dr Lee Willett.

The authors are available for interview, any interview bids on the report findings should go through Daniel Sherman at or 020 7747 2617.

About RUSI

Founded by the Duke of Wellington in 1831, the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) aims to work on the cutting edge of defence and security studies. Our purpose is to analyse, stimulate debate and identify options for all issues of national and international defence and security.

We have a British perspective but a global scope.

We are a membership organisation, independent of Government, which organises events, from large conferences to small personal meetings. We undertake a wide range of research from major projects to smaller contracts, using our three research departments which cover International Security Studies, the Military Sciences and Homeland Security and Resilience. We produce a number of general and expert publications in the defence and security fields.

For further information please contact Daniel Sherman, on or 020 7747 2617.

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