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The nuclear-weapons agenda

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A big week in international politics sees the United States play host to a series of gatherings and discussions: among them the United Nations climate-change conference, bilateral meetings between President Barack Obama and major foreign leaders, and the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in Pittsburgh on 24-25 September 2009. The speeches and the headlines on a host of issues come thick and fast, and prominently include a topic that for a long time as neglected but is now being reclaimed as one for key diplomatic attention: nuclear weapons and how to reduce, even eliminate, them.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford's peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch here
The speech by Barack Obama to the United Nations general assembly on 23 September, in which he named "non-proliferation and disarmament" as one of the four "pillars" essential to global, is one index of this concern; his initiative led to the United Nations Security Council passing a resolution on 24 September that urged all countries to work toward these ends.

The offer by Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown - on the same day and in the same location as Obama's speech - to reduce Britain's nuclear forces by withdrawing one of the country's four Trident nuclear-armed submarines, is part of the same trend. The significance of both leaders' rhetorical positions is increased by the approach of the approaching review-conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), to be held in New York on 3-28 May 2010 (see "The nuclear-weapons opportunity", 6 August 2009).

Gordon Brown's gesture is an exercise in political symbolism rather than a major change in Britain's nuclear posture. The fourth submarine is essentially a "spare" and it is probable that - whatever some nuclear-weapons advocates say - a missile submarine can be maintained on patrol at sea at all times with a fleet of just three boats. This maintenance of what is termed "continuous at-sea deterrence" (CASD) is at the core of the nuclear stance, and Brown's offer would do little to change that.

Yet the political symbolism is powerful, and will be welcomed in Washington and in many other capital cities where governments have become increasingly alert to the dangers of a proliferating world. The Obama administration has improved relations with Moscow by halting the plans for an anti-missile system and associated radar installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, and now wants to move on to bilateral talks aimed at limiting the many thousands of strategic nuclear warheads that remain in the two former cold-war rivals' arsenals (see Andrew Mack, "America, Russia, and a nuclear-free world", 6 July 2009).

The project of power

Britain is a small but not inconsequential player in this "game". There are hints from sources close to the prime minister that Britain might be prepared to take further steps: perhaps slowing the development of Trident's successor or reducing the number of missile-tubes in each boat. There are signs too that the opposition Conservative Party appears willing to back at least the proposal to withdraw a single submarine - which might become even more relevant should the party gain power in the general election scheduled for (at latest) late May 2010.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming

In addition, the elements of its decision-making over nuclear weapons are made more interesting by changes in the British political mood; this tends to be less favourable than in the mid-2000s to the current plans to replace Trident, which seem inordinately expensive at a time of financial constraint and less relevant in light of British operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This political and military environment raises profound questions about the overall direction of British defence policy. Gordon Brown says that the independent nuclear force is sacrosanct yet is prepared to reduce it from a level previously claimed to be the minimum. This is in the context of great doubts across the political spectrum over the building of two huge new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft-carriers and their even more expensive complement of F-35 multi-role strike-aircraft (see "British sea power: a 21st-century question" [13 July 2006] and "Gordon Brown's white elephants" [26 July 2007]).

The two carriers will give the Royal Navy a power-projection capability second only to the United States; they will be able to operate, for example, in the oil-rich waters of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. The nuclear force exists as their ultimate support-system. Together, the carriers and the nuclear force embody the British aspiration to maintain a level of traditional military power appropriate to a country that believes this is the main guarantee of being taken seriously on the world stage (see "Britain's nuclear-weapons fix", 29 June 2006).

The cost of hubris

Gordon Brown's offer has in itself little to do with saving money. It is rather a genuine part of an effort (albeit modest) to improve the prospects for a successful NPT review-conference. There is in principle scope for further action in relation to the nuclear arsenal that goes far beyond current plans. A decision could be made, for example, to end continuous at-sea deterrence via a substantial scaling down of the "alert" status; to operate the existing submarines with only half the missile-tubes loaded; and even to greatly reduce the Trident-replacement programme as a whole to the level of a handful of nuclear cruise-missiles on the new Astute-class of attack submarines (see Nick Ritchie, Stepping Down the Nuclear Ladder: Options for Trident on a Path to Zero [Bradford Disarmament Research Centre, May 2009]).

These adjustments could cut the entire British nuclear force to a quarter or even a fifth of its current size, so that it became smaller than India's or Pakistan's. A commitment by the present government even to consider any of these options would help create a positive momentum in advance of the NPT review-conference.

The arguments for change are financial as well as strategic, however. Both the Trident-replacement project and the aircraft-carrier programme are under scrutiny because of a coming era of austerity in public spending as well as because of doubts over their strategic utility.

The public discussion of these military plans is routinely surrounded by a misleading estimate of costs. The government ministers responsible, for example, are content to detail the relatively small amounts needed to build the two aircraft-carriers while neglecting to give even the most basic estimates of the much greater expenditure required on the F-35 strike-aircraft (without which the carriers are pointless). In the same vein, Trident-replacement costs are measured in terms of the building programmes with little or no attention paid to the £1 billion annual spending devoted to the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston, or the very high annual running-costs of the submarines and their armaments.

Yet even if these items were factored in, many more would still be left out. For example, aircraft-carriers can operate only alongside powerful air-defence destroyers to protect them and large auxiliary-ships to supply them. The rapidly shrinking size of the navy's surface fleet means that a significant proportion of naval power will be devoted to supporting these two carriers alone.

Similarly, the nuclear-missile fleet does not operate alone; it is backed up by nuclear-powered attack-submarines in what is termed "deterrence support". All the land-based nuclear infrastructures, including the warhead arsenal at Coulport and the production facilities at Aldermaston and Burghfield, have battalions of soldiers earmarked for emergency security-support.

Greenpeace has published estimates that take some of these factors into account and conclude that the true overall costs of the two systems are hugely greater than those commonly given by the government. The Trident-replacement programme is costed at £97 billion ($158bn), much more than double the usual government figure; the carrier/F-35 programme is costed at over £31 billion ($51bn) (see Greenpeace, In the Firing Line: hidden costs of the supercarrier project and replacing Trident, 17 September 2009).

It seems increasingly likely a defence review conducted after the 2010 election - under the auspices of whichever political party is victorious - will result in the cancellation of at least one (and possibly both) of the carriers, even though the early stages of construction are already underway. That in itself will knock a hole in Britain's continuing "big-power" aspirations; but it will also raise the much bigger question of what role the country should really be playing in the world (see "The politics of security: beyond militarism", 2 July 2009).

The cunning of history

Perhaps the central problem is that Britain remains bedevilled by its imperial past. Even into the mid-1950s many sectors of the country's establishment and press continued to recycle the myth that Britain was one of three world superpowers. There have been huge changes since in international politics and economics, yet the traces of such illusions persist in the notion that the country - whose inhabitants form less than 1% of the world's population - remains somehow a global leader as of right and inheritance.

There are occasional signs of a different approach, which embody a recognition that the major global issues of the 2010-40 period will have very little to do with aircraft-carriers and nuclear forces (see "The politics of security: beyond militarism", 2 July 2009). The true core concerns will be very different: the deepening socio-economic divide, poverty and marginalisation, and environmental constraints - especially climate change. To address these, fresh and radical thinking on the nature of security will be needed, especially the development of ideas about sustainable security (see "A world in need: the case for sustainable security", 10 September 2009).

In this respect, the current economic recession - and the severe and long-lasting cuts in public expenditure that will follow - could have important consequences for Britain's defence and security policy: in effect, forcing the country to acknowledge both the irrelevance of much of its current defence posture and the need for a radically different approach to international security. A rational assessment and confident analysis might be enough to reach these conclusions; but if it takes the pressure of economic circumstances to achieve the same result, many will regard that as a historical twist worth welcoming.

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