The new nuclear deterrence and disarmament crisis

In Part One, we looked at the violation of the fundamental principles of Mutually Assured Destruction. In Part Two, we discuss a new world role for Britain.

Robert Green
8 April 2019
Obama and Hollande at a P5 + 1 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, 2016, to keep ISIS and others from obtaining nuclear material and other weapons of mass destruction.
Obama and Hollande at a P5 + 1 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, 2016, to keep ISIS and others from obtaining nuclear material and other weapons of mass destruction.
Pool/PA. All rights reserved.

Britain is the best-placed nuclear weapon state to lead the world out of the new nuclear deterrence and disarmament crisis.

The UK nuclear arsenal is the smallest of the P5, deployed in only one system, at several days’ notice to fire; a £70 billion Defence Budget deficit, driven by planned Trident renewal related to dependence on the US, would grow with Brexit; and the £50 billion opportunity cost of Trident renewal could be redirected to providing a more balanced, useful Royal Navy contribution to graduated conventional deterrence.

Meanwhile, Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has experienced no loss of public support on pledging that, if he became Prime Minister, he would refuse to authorise nuclear weapon use, and would sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

In addition, there is a solid anti-nuclear majority in Scotland, where British nuclear weapons are based, linked to support for independence.

Finally, a network of legal, academic and political experts and former RN operators of nuclear weapons are working in support of a determined, experienced group of campaigners opposing the UK Government’s unlawful and irresponsible nuclear posture.

If the UK were to reject nuclear deterrence, the British and international anti-nuclear movements, and an overwhelming majority of world opinion, would erupt in support. As initiator, organiser and energiser of a process that would start to shift western attitudes from the current adversarial national security paradigm to one embracing co-operative security, the UK would gain a global role in which it would be welcomed as truly a ‘force for good’.

The first anti-nuclear breakout by one of the P5 would be sensational, and would transform the nuclear disarmament debate overnight. In NATO, Britain would wield unprecedented influence in leading the drive for a non-nuclear strategy – which must happen if NATO is to sustain its cohesion

In NATO, Britain would wield unprecedented influence in leading the drive for a non-nuclear strategy – which must happen if NATO is to sustain its cohesion.

It would create new openings for shifting the mindset in the US and France, and give pause to India, Pakistan and others seeking nuclear weapons. Moreover, it would open the way for a major reassessment by Russia and China of their nuclear strategies, for all nuclear forces to be de-alerted, and for multilateral negotiations to start on a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

Britain should lead France away from nuclear deterrence

Some political and military diehards argue that it is critical for Britain to retain nuclear weapons because ‘France must never be allowed to be the sole European nuclear power.’ My response is that the security threats confronting British and fellow Europeans in the twenty-first century demand that both the UK and France move on at last from the Napoleonic Wars and loss of Empires.

As the first medium-sized power to acquire nuclear weapons, Britain has the opportunity to set France a wiser and more responsible example. Central to this are the opportunity costs for both countries’ defence policies. Above all, the ridiculous notion that France’s greatness depends on possession of nuclear weapons should be exposed as demeaning to French citizens and culture. The reality is that threatening nuclear weapon use risks the annihilation of both French and British culture within devastated and poisoned homelands.

A new British challenge to ‘Pressing the nuclear button’

Since the 1990s, when UK nuclear weapons were de-targeted and placed at relaxed notice to fire, a decision to re-target, let alone use, UK Trident would initiate the most extreme use of British military force, with unprecedented political and legal implications.

A 2016 report by Sir John Chilcot on lessons to be learned from the disastrous 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq recommended that Parliament should be more involved in a decision to go to war.

A Parliamentary Inquiry by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee is currently probing how best to implement this. A former distinguished British Polaris submarine Commander, Robert Forsyth, has made a submission to this Inquiryrecommending establishment of an advisory committee, independent of Government, to scrutinise the political and legal justifications for a re-targeting or firing order from the Prime Minister.

Commander Forsyth’s concern is that the currently deployed UK Trident-armed submarine Commanding Officer, who is acutely aware that what he is there to do is to actually ‘press the nuclear button’ on behalf of the Prime Minister, would be placed in legal jeopardy by current British nuclear policy.

Nuremberg Principle IVstates: ‘The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible for him.’ Interestingly, Admiral Lord Alan West, testifying to the Inquiry as First Sea Lord during the invasion of Iraq, endorsed Cdr Forsyth’s concern. And of course, the reality is that there is no scenario where a 100 kiloton UK Trident warhead could ever be used lawfully.

The reality is that there is no scenario where a 100 kiloton UK Trident warhead could ever be used lawfully.

A most timely relevant report, The Finger on the Button - The Authority to Use Nuclear Weapons in Nuclear-Armed States, was published in February by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey. Prompted by concerns over US President Trump’s nuclear threats to North Korea’s President Kim Jong-un, the authors Jeffrey Lewis and Bruno Tertrais compare who is authorised to initiate nuclear weapon use and the related procedures in each of the nine known nuclear-armed States.

However, re-targeting is not mentioned, and there is little discussion of accountability, especially the need to justify use and scrutinise legality. Yet at least one US Trident submarine Commanding Officer has indicated that, in the event of a peacetime order to launch, he would insist on confirmation and a justification. Also, there is no mention of recent public statements by current and ex-Chiefs of US Strategic Command challenging an illegal firing order.

Meanwhile, when I last met Bruno Tertrais, a veteran commentator and former adviser to the French Ministry of Defence, I asked him what impact British breakout from nuclear deterrence would have in France. He replied: ‘It would make the French think objectively about nuclear weapons for the first time.’


To conclude, in my view the most groundbreaking achievement of the TPNW is to have provoked the US-led nuclear cartel to drop any attempt to conceal its irresponsible, dishonest manipulation of nuclear deterrence theory and doctrine, with associated dangers to global security. This is why, in my recent TEDx talkon the insanity of nuclear deterrence, I risked telling it like it is:

“Nuclear deterrence is no more than a repulsive, unlawful protection racket used as a counterfeit currency of power. It is hugely profitable to the corporate arms industry. The power elites of the nuclear-armed states are in denial that their game of nuclear chicken really does risk the survival of us all.

But the tide of history is at last turning towards justice. It is time for all of us to step up and end the threat to humanity and the planet from this irresponsible hoax holding us all hostage.”

See Part One here.

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