The nuclear-weapons moment

The global effort to extinguish the nuclear peril needs to regain momentum. A bold act of leadership and imagination by one of the weapons-states could provide it.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 March 2010

Barack Obama’s pledges during his campaign for the United States presidency in 2008 included one that was especially bold and ambitious: working towards substantial reductions in nuclear arsenals linked to the larger aim of moving to a nuclear-free world. 

The promise was reaffirmed in the new president’s speech in Prague in April 2009, and has again emerged in the run-up to the review conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) to be held in New York on 3-28 May 2010 (see David E Sanger & Thom Shanker, “White House is Rethinking Nuclear Policy”, New York Times, 28 February 2010). 

The political impetus of the Obama administration’s approach to nuclear-weapons reduction is closely linked to the development of its forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review, around which a number of possible proposals – some unilateral and some more broadly based - are clustering (see Mike Shuster, “Delayed U.S. nuclear review likely to call for cuts”, NPR, 3 March 2010). The administration would like Congress to ratify the comprehensive test-ban treaty (CTBT), and some opinion-formers close to the White House would like to see the United States embrace a no-first-use policy. Both suggestions are guaranteed to raise political problems: some in Congress are opposed to CTBT ratification because it might limit further nuclear-weapon developments, and many in the Pentagon opposed to the presumed constraints of a no-first-use policy.

The administration is more determined when it comes to halting the development of new nuclear warheads. It is also willing to make progress with Russia over mutually verifiable cuts in strategic arsenals, and ready (subject to Russia doing the same) to reduce the US’s remaining stocks of tactical nuclear warheads (see Andrew Mack, “America, Russia, and a nuclear-free world”, 6 July 2009).

The great-power stakes

These planning and diplomatic considerations, amid the approach to the five-yearly review of the NPT, are surrounded by a certain sense of urgency. There are, broadly, three reasons for this.

First, the last review conference in 2005 achieved very little, and there is great concern among policy-makers that another failure must be avoided (see Patricia Lewis, "The NPT review conference...", 1 June 2005). Second, the acquisition of a nuclear-weapons capacity by North Korea (which signed the NPT in 1985 but withdrew in 2003) and the continuing tension over Iran’s nuclear plans (Tehran was a founding signatory in 1968 but has given mixed signals about its future plans) raise questions over the robustness of the treaty. Third, the signs of slippage to a more proliferating world make it vital to regain regulatory momentum.

The conclusion drawn from these trends by informed analysts is that the major existing nuclear powers must intensify their efforts to marginalise nuclear weapons on the world stage (see “The nuclear-weapons opportunity”, 7 August 2009).

That there is indeed opportunity for progress is suggested by the substantial decline in the size of the world’s nuclear arsenals since the extraordinary (and ludicrous) peaks of the cold-war years. In the mid-1980s, the number of weapons reached its highest point at around 65,000. The United States and the Soviet Union possessed the great majority of these; Britain, France and China all had several hundred each; Israel had over one hundred; and India had tested a device in 1974, though claimed not to have developed an arsenal.

In 2010, the global inventory is now around 23,000 warheads, a reduction of almost two-thirds (and indeed two-thirds even of this much-reduced total is in storage (see “Status of World Nuclear Forces”, Federation of American Scientists, 2010). This leaves 7,900 remaining “active” nuclear weapons: most of them many times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, and thus singularly and in total a huge and dangerous overkill. There is thus still great scope for further reductions, by the middle-ranking powers as well as by Washington and Moscow.

The reduction in numbers has been accompanied by progress in other areas. Some arms-control agreements reached in the late 1980s included impressive verification and inspection procedures; notably, the intermediate nuclear-forces treaty (INF) that led to the removal of Cruise, Pershing and SS-20 missiles from Europe. South Africa voluntarily gave up its small nuclear force at the end of the apartheid era; Brazil and Argentina avoided a potentially dangerous arms race in the 1980s; and three former Soviet states - Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan - returned nuclear stocks to Russia in the early 1990s.

This history offers an example of what can be done with the right combination of leadership, imagination, citizen pressure and propitious international circumstances. The key question now is whether these elements will align around the forthcoming NPT review, perhaps symbolised by a major initiative from one or more of the nuclear-weapon states. It is just possible, for example, that Washington and Moscow will announce the terms of an agreement that could cut both strategic warheads (from the current joint total of around 4,700 to barely half that) and the smaller stocks of tactical weapons. At the same time, the period before the NPT’s opening session is unlikely to see a firm agreement. Israel will certainly do nothing; there is no prospect of India or Pakistan making concessions; France and China have both dismantled much of their nuclear stocks since 1990 but will be reluctant to do more.

This leaves just one potential candidate for an initiative, namely Britain. It is worth looking in a bit more detail at its likelihood.

The gentleman’s gesture

What makes the British case interesting is that political circumstances might make a move feasible. At the height of the cold war in the early 1980s, the United Kingdom had about 400 nuclear warheads of its own, access to United States systems under a dual-key control agreement, and an arrangement which allowed the US to stockpile several hundred weapons in the country (see Brian Cathcart, "Britain and the atomic bomb", 5 August 2005).

Britain’s nuclear forces included “free-fall” bombs for Vulcan, Tornado, Buccaneer, Jaguar and Sea Harrier strike-aircraft; US warheads for Lance battlefield missiles and artillery in Germany; and US anti-submarine bombs for Nimrod maritime-patrol aircraft. The Royal Navy even had anti-submarine nuclear depth-bombs. All of this was in addition to the core Polaris strategic force (see Paul Rogers & Malcolm Dando, NBC 90: The Directory of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms and Disarmament 1990, Tri-Service Press, 1990)

The great majority of these systems were withdrawn in the 1990s, many of them under the Conservative government of John Major; by the end of the decade all but one had gone - the Trident system that had replaced Polaris. What remains are around 160 warheads for the current Trident fleet of four ballistic-missile submarines, with one submarine on patrol and providing what is termed continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD).

A single submarine deploys with sixteen missiles, each able to carry three warheads (every single one having eight times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb). Some missiles may carry a single smaller warhead, with the theoretical maximum for a submarine being forty-eight warheads.  Britain does not have a no-first-use policy and is planning to replace Trident in due course.

There are several options for scaling down Britain’s nuclear posture (see Nick Ritchie, Stepping Down the Nuclear Ladder: Options for Trident on a Path to Zero (Bradford Disarmament Research Centre, May 2009); there are also proposals to replace Trident with a much more basic system (see “Two steps to zero”, 17 July 2008).

An immediate and straightforward option would be to announce in advance of the NPT review that Britain will cut its warhead stockpile from 160 to under 100. Many, after all, will justly argue that the ability to destroy nearly a hundred cities is hardly the behaviour of a supposedly “advanced” state, but even this argument might have less momentum than the symbolic one that the country is ready to reduce its nuclear stockpile to its lowest level for nearly fifty years (see “The nuclear-weapons agenda”, 24 September 2009).

Here, symbolism meets politics: for the British general election (to be held most probably on 6 May 2010) will coincide with the NPT conference, and an announcement of this kind by the ruling Labour government would have the support of many opposition parties (the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, and even much of the Conservative Party - including, quite probably, its leadership). Thus a nuclear initiative would be more than timely, as well as conveniently leaving aside for the moment the more contentious issue of the longer-term future of Trident nuclear force.

There are occasions when symbolic gestures carry an especial potency. John F Kennedy’s unilateral ending of atmospheric nuclear tests in 1963 led eventually to a series of agreements, including the limited test-ban treaty (PTBT) and the NPT itself; while Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev’s summit in Iceland in 1987 led to the INF treaty. Equally, the cost of inaction can be measured in greater international danger and tension. A repeat of 2005’s disappointment would greatly diminish the prospects for curbing nuclear proliferation, let alone moving towards a nuclear-free world. A gesture from Britain might - just might - make a real and positive difference.

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