Nuclear weapons: the oxygen of debate

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 December 2006

The government of Tony Blair (and his likely replacement Gordon Brown) made clear in June 2006 its intention that Britain's Trident nuclear-weapon system would be replaced in due course. But this only became a formal recommendation with the publication in December 2006 of an official white paper, The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent (Command 6994). A parliamentary vote to ratify the decision is scheduled for March 2007.

Thus, the government is allowing only three months for a debate about a momentous aspect of British defence policy, one with many implications for national and international security in the 21st century. But this document and this timeframe does at least provide some basis for a discussion - one that is badly needed.

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

The "sub-strategic" mystique

An earlier article in this series ("Britain's nuclear-weapons fix", 29 June 2006) pointed to the hidden side of Britain's nuclear forces - that Britain has persistently deployed tactical nuclear weapons around the world for more than forty years, that it is prepared to use nuclear weapons first, and that it has thoroughly embraced the idea of nuclear war-fighting.

This runs directly counter to the impression that the current government is at great pains to give - British nuclear forces are purely deterrents against nuclear attack and would only be used if the country was being destroyed by a nuclear adversary. This is the government line - from which there simply mustn't be any deviation. Perish the thought that there could ever be an open debate about nuclear first-use: after all, that might make people start to wonder about this multi-billion pound "last-resort" insurance policy.

In fact, the British government will not even acknowledge that the country continues to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, calling them a "sub-strategic" version of the main Trident warhead, a city-busting bomb rated at eight times the size of the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima. It is even intent on not discussing how destructive the "sub-strategic" Trident warhead actually is.

From what is known so far, each of the current Trident boats carries sixteen missiles, with most of them fitted with three 100-kiloton warheads per missile. Some, however, are fitted with a small single warhead, almost certainly rated at substantially less than five kilotons. That is actually a lot smaller than many of the tactical nuclear weapons deployed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and the Warsaw Pact for their hugely dangerous nuclear war-fighting strategies of the cold-war era.

One example was the Lance battlefield missile that used to be deployed by the British army in West Germany with a "variable-yield" W70 warhead of from one to 100 kilotons; the British army also used to field the M110 203mm self-propelled howitzer which could fire the W33 nuclear warhead rated at twelve kilotons over a range of nineteen miles (thirty kilometres) with a firing rate of one every two minutes.

These were warheads held under a "dual-key" system with the United States army, and both forces had to agree to their use, but Britain had its own tactical nuclear bombs that could be delivered by aircraft against land targets or helicopters against submarines. The first of these could be set at a range of destructive forces from five to 200 kilotons; the anti-submarine version would have been around five kilotons.

This means that the Trident "sub-strategic" warhead, at less than five kilotons, is "smaller" than a cold-war-era nuclear howitzer or an anti-submarine depth-bomb, yet the government is absolutely insistent that the term "tactical" must not be used in polite circles (indeed it must not be used in any circles).

What are they for?

What, then, of the Trident replacement? Would this last-ditch insurance policy ever involve first use, and will there still be a tactical version? The forty-page white paper has to be searched very diligently to get any clue about these two issues, but look carefully and they are covered, if in the most minimal of terms.

In relation to targeting, the document says (page 18):

"We deliberately maintain ambiguity about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate use of our nuclear deterrent. We will not simplify the calculations of a potential aggressor by defining more precisely the circumstances in which we might consider the use of our nuclear capabilities. Hence, we will not rule in or out the first use of nuclear warheads." (emphasis added)

Any potential first use of nuclear weapons is made far more feasible if there is a range of options including a low yield warhead, and here again there is a single if key mention in the whole white paper (page 23):

"As with our current deterrent, the ability to vary the numbers of missiles and warheads which might be employed, coupled with the continued availability of a lower yield from our warhead, can make our nuclear forces a more credible deterrent against smaller nuclear threats." (emphasis added)

Thus, Britain will retain an option of first use and a range of warheads for flexibility. Moreover, since the Trident replacement will last until 2050, current British plans are to have this nuclear "versatility" for the next forty-four years: hardly the greatest encouragement for those seeking to control nuclear proliferation.

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 new book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, November 2006)

The idea of nuclear war-fighting by a middle-ranking power such as Britain seems far-fetched. But it is worth remembering that this has long been a feature of British nuclear planning; that Britain deployed tactical nuclear weapons in the south Atlantic during the Falklands/Malvinas war in 1982; and that the former defence secretary, Geoff Hoon made it clear that Britain would be prepared to use nuclear weapons against Iraq in 2003.

This whole issue of what Britain's nuclear forces are for ought to be at the heart of the current debate, but there is every indication that the Blair government will do its very best to prevent this, stonewalling on any occasion when the issue is raised.

A sliver of light

A personal note may illustrate the official culture of authority and secrecy at work. Over the past few years I have done a number of pieces of "expert witness" work at court cases involving anti-nuclear protestors charged with invading nuclear facilities. On each occasion I submit a written analysis of Britain's nuclear-targeting policy; on virtually every occasion the judge or magistrate rules it as not relevant, so the arguments about potential nuclear use are simply not tested in court.

On the very few occasions when I have been allowed to give evidence in court, the prosecuting lawyers have been most diligent in raising just about every issue but the possible use of nuclear weapons.

In 2007, the House of Commons defence select committee is due to discuss the new white paper, and it is just possible that committee members will want to raise this issue. That, at least, would be some small progress towards a genuine debate on British nuclear policy. Whether it will be enough to extract any information at all from the ministry of defence remains to be seen.

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