British Nuclear Follies

7 November 2005

British Nuclear Follies

By Gwynne Dyer

You can see why North Korea might feel safer with nuclear weapons: Russia to the north, China to the west and the US Seventh Fleet to the east and south all bristle with nukes. You can see why Iran might want nuclear weapons, too: Russia to the north, US bases and ships to the south, and Israel to the west all have nuclear missiles, and they probably all have the coordinates of Iranian targets in their guidance systems. It’s obvious why India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons. But Britain? Who on earth is Britain trying to deter?

When Tony Blair announced recently that a decision will be taken to replace Britain’s existing nuclear deterrent (four submarines carrying Trident missiles) within the life of the present parliament, a backbench MP from his own Labour Party, Paul Flynn, pointed out the yawning gap in the prime minister’s logic: “To have a nuclear deterrent now — where these

Trident submarines wander the oceans with missiles aimed at nothing — is a meaningless proposition.” And they really are aimed at nothing.

They certainly aren’t aimed at Russia any more, and none of the other nuclear weapons powers has a quarrel with Britain either. The British government has abandoned its old “no-first-use” rule and now apes the US policy of leaving all the options open, including possible nuclear strikes against non-nuclear countries, but in practice you cannot think of a possible target for British nuclear weapons even under the new rules.

Even Defence Secretary John Reid does not try to justify Britain’s “independent nuclear deterrent” in terms of current threats, instead evoking an uncertain future. “It is impossible in most cases to predict where your enemy will come from,” he told “The Guardian” in September. “Nobody foresaw the invasion of the Falklands or that Saddam would invade Kuwait…so to say whether we might have a nuclear enemy in 15 years’ time is a difficult question to answer, other than to say history probably suggests we will.”

Nobody ever advocated using nuclear weapons on Buenos Aires or Baghdad, and Britain’s own history suggests that “nuclear enemies” eventually cease to be enemies, so it’s hard to treat this as a serious argument. Paul Flynn doesn’t even try: “I cannot think of any conceivable use that (British) nuclear weapons could have, apart from the prestige they give us. They also undermine our position in international talks. How dare we tell Iran not to develop nuclear weapons, when we are going ahead with updating ours?”

The hypocrisy is outrageous, but so familiar that it has ceased to cause outrage. A more useful line of inquiry is to ask why Britain needs to update its Tridents NOW. The official answer is that submarines wear out — every time they dive and surface the pressure hull flexes, and eventually the metal deteriorates — and that new satellite imaging systems may soon be able to track Britain’s submarines even at their usual maximum depth of around 2,200 feet (700 metres).

But even if the satellite imaging technology works as advertised, only the Americans and Russians are likely to have it for the foreseeable future. Who cares if they know where British submarines are?

As for the submarines, the obvious answer to hull fatigue — given the total lack of targets for their missiles at the moment — would be to extend their useful lives by laying two or three of them up. But then it turns out that the argument is a red herring anyway: Britain’s current fleet of missile-firing submarines is actually good until at least 2024.

Since even the British government admits that it would take only 14 years to build a replacement for its existing nuclear deterrent, no decision on the next generation of British nuclear weapons, if any, should be needed for another five years. What really drives the timetable is the fact that the United States will soon take decisions on replacing its own Tridents, and Britain must move at the same time if it wants to hitch a ride on the next generation of American technology.

Britain is not a truly independent nuclear power like the US, Russia, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan. It manufactures its own nuclear warheads, but ever since the Nassau agreement of 1962 it has depended on the United States for its missiles — and those missiles come with strings attached. Indeed, the Tridents that Britain operates now would be unusable in eighteen months without constant American technical support, and it is unimaginable that Britain would ever fire them without American consent.

So the “prestige” of being a nuclear weapons power only impresses the British public, not the foreign experts, and Britain’s weapons have no credible targets anyway, and it will cost an estimated $45 billion to replace them…. Maybe it’s time to let them go.

More nations have turned their backs on nuclear weapons in the past generation than have developed new ones — Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan all handed theirs back to Russia, Argentina and Brazil negotiated a treaty to end their race to acquire nuclear arms, and South Africa dismantled its bombs after the end of apartheid — but no traditional great power has ever walked away from nuclear weapons before. Tony Blair will do nothing that would embarrass his soul-brother George Bush, but in a year or two he will probably be gone. His successor will have a great opportunity.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“The hypocrisy…2024”)