Does the Rest of the World Need the UK to Give Up Trident?

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What is the effective deterrent against the threat and use of nuclear weapons?

Trident v Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, 1968 (NPT)

As North Korea announces, with pride, it is joining of the ranks of the nuclear power nations, the UK is again confronted with the question of Trident, and more significantly, should the UK continue to proclaim itself a nuclear power?

When Considering Trident

The difficulty is, that we, as a nation, have forgotten what the question of Trident is actually about. Trident is a nuclear weapon and it serves one purpose: the infliction of mass destruction. But we discuss Trident in terms of public spending and the cost of replacing Trident at about 167 billion pounds – or indeed, the cost to the nation of jobs being lost if we withdraw from the Trident programme.

But the discussion about Trident is a two-pronged question, the parts of which should not be confused.

The first question has got to be:

Do we want Britain to continue to be a nuclear power?

The second question is dependent upon our answer to the first :

If we choose – or not – to continue in the manufacture and possession of nuclear weapons – what is the impact of that decision in the domestic arena?

The decision to replace the current Trident Vanguard-class submarines with the new Successor fleet and to thereafter maintain them, at a cost of £167 billion⁽¹⁾ and thereafter, to refurnish them with new Trident ballistic missiles, in 2035, is a decision to renew our commitment to nuclear weapons for another generational term. This “Main Gate” decision, to be voted upon in the commons later this year (2016) is a once in a generation decision that has international ramifications with far reaching consequences, for ourselves, our children, and for the world at large.

The government argues⁽²⁾ that we live in a dangerous world and uncertain times; that the difficulty is not necessarily the established nuclear club – The Big Five – but rather new nations emerging as new nuclear threats. The government argues we must retain our nuclear weapons as a deterrent against these rogue nations.

Further, that it’s because of our retention of nuclear weapons that there’s been a lengthy period of peace following Hiroshima and WW2⁽³⁾; that as a direct result of the nuclear powers maintaining, allegedly, the balance of power, world peace has been maintained.

In the words of Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary, you cannot “un-invent” nuclear weapons.

The Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious is pictured near Faslane in Scotland. HMS Victorious was the second of the four ballistic missile submarines to emerge from the Devonshire Dock Hall in Barrow, where she was officially 'launched' on 29 September 1993. Based at Clyde Naval Base, HMS Victorious' is continuing the Royal Navy's proud record of over 40 years of uninterrupted nuclear deterrence, as at least one of the four 'bombers' is on patrol at any time.

The Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious is pictured near Faslane in Scotland.


Well, no, we can’t – but we can eliminate them. We are not children – we are adults, more than capable of taking the adult decision to retract from a decision which has been shown to be foolhardy.

Take, for example, the field of biological and chemical weapons both subject to a successful outright ban, and despite America’s initial reluctance.

In the event, America did make the commitment to lead the way, destroying its own stockpile of chemical weapons from 1992. In turn, the Chemical Weapons Convention received 192 signatories out of 195 nations. As a direct result of this Convention, and to include, where necessary the taking of diplomatic action, 90% of the world’s stockpile of chemical weapons has now been destroyed⁽⁴⁾.

This included the case of Iraq, who was successfully subject to sanctions and inspections (the alleged justifications for the 2003 Iraq War notwithstanding).

In exceptional circumstances, such Conventions allow the International Community, acting together, to lawfully take military action – preventative measures to disable and destroy any means of producing chemical weapons.

This raises the question: If the Chemical Weapons Convention has been so successful, why has the international community not simply introduced an outright ban on nuclear weapons?  The difficulty faced by the international community is the fact that all security resolutions passed are undertaken by the United Nations Security Council. However, the five permanent members – who happen also to be the nuclear club: France, Russia, China, America and us, the UK, have power of veto over all UN resolutions and without whose agreement no legal resolution can be reached or action taken under international law⁽⁵⁾.

The government nonetheless maintains that we cannot support a ban on nuclear weapons – that our retention of nuclear weapons is an absolute necessity⁽⁶⁾.

In support of this assertion, Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary, 2016 cites that our responsibilities to the NATO alliance require us to retain nuclear weapons⁽⁷⁾.

I note that of the 28 members of NATO, 25 are non-nuclear powers. Clearly, the possession of nuclear weapons is not a condition of NATO membership⁽⁸⁾.

The UK has only one, singular nuclear weapon system which at any given time patrols one submarine with a maximum of 40 warheads; a total of 160 warheads across our four Vanguard-class nuclear weapons submarines.

America on the other hand has 7500 nuclear weapons, of which 1800 stand on permanent state of high alert with the capacity to be launched within minutes.

I think it’s safe to say, America does not need our nuclear weapons.

Rather America is dependent upon the moral authority it derives from the fact of us, the UK, having nuclear weapons in order to justify and rationalise its own nuclear weapons policy to its own populace and the international community.

In the words of Patrick Cordingley, who led the British forces in the Gulf war in Iraq in 2003:

“Strategic nuclear weapons have no military use. It would seem that the government wishes to replace Trident to remain a nuclear power.”

Tony Blair later confirmed this opinion, stating, in his memoirs:

“the expense [of Trident] is huge and the utility…non-existent in terms of military use.”

He nonetheless implemented the “Initial Gate” phase of the Trident Successor programme, stating that the abandonment of Trident would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”.

Trident is a useless and indiscriminate weapon of war.

In reality, the genuine deterrent for the last 50 years has not been a weapon of war, but rather a diplomatic agreement, otherwise known as the NPT: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968.

Of this Treaty’s 190 signatories, 185 countries have honoured and respected the obligation to not proliferate, to disarm, to cease planning, designing and manufacturing nuclear weapons⁽⁹⁾. Nations such as South Africa, who dismantled its operational system, Brazil and Egypt and Sweden, all of whom gave up their means of development and production of nuclear weapons; the Eastern Block countries, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus who between them dismantled over 5000 operational nuclear weapons inherited from the USSR.

The success of this deterrent Treaty has been founded upon the promise of the five founding nuclear club powers that they would honour their legal obligations by engaging in, and concluding negotiations intended to bring about – within a reasonable time frame – the elimination of their nuclear weapons.

It is this non-proliferation treaty that has been the effective deterrent for the past five decades – and not our nuclear weapons. At least, that is, until now…

The current situation, is that this Treaty, the NPT, has been brought to its knees by the refusal of the five founding nuclear powers: the five rogue states, to honour their legally binding obligation to disarm.

We, the UK, are at a crucial Turning Point Decision.

We have the option to simply allow Trident to undergo a quiet and peaceful death over the next 20 years; to fulfil our international obligations in good faith. Our failure to do so will cause significant consternation in the international community and further erode trust in not only us, but in the deterrent Treaty itself.

Why us? – I hear you ask – Why not France, China, America or Russia?

The actuality is that no one in their right minds expected the Americans and the Russians – with a joint capacity of 15,000 nuclear warheads – to wake up one morning and say, ‘don’t worry guys, we’ll ban the bomb’, nor could they: it will take decades, and billions of pounds to safely dismantle these weapons.

We, on the other hand, have one nuclear weapon system and this system is on its way out. We have a choice: we can choose to simply let Trident go.

The whole world is looking towards Britain to make that decision – to take a lead – to validate international good faith in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

If we choose to renew Trident we are sending a message across the world that we have no intention of disarming. Rather, we will be reaffirming our commitment to a whole generation of nuclear weapons, sending the message loud and clear that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not work; that it is without teeth; that the signatories have no honour. We’ll be telling the world that it’s ambition for nuclear disarmament is a failure and a fraud.

In short, WE will be kick-starting the arms race all over again.

In 2006: Tony Blair said:

“We have the right to possess nuclear weapons”.

The problem is that international law does not recognise Britain as having a special right. It’s not our right –  any right we have belongs equally to the rest of world.

Thus far, the rest of the world has tolerated our possession of nuclear weapons in the expectation that when the Trident system went down – it would stay down. The world did not expect us to manufacture a whole new system.

The truth is, if we have the right to nuclear weapons then so too do North Korea. And India. And Israel. And even, Iraq.

In 2006, North Korea commenced its testing of nuclear weapons. In January 2016, North Korea had successfully detonated its fourth nuclear bomb, unleashing an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.1. North Korea is believed to possess six to 8 missiles, but as yet, no effective long-range delivery system, such as Trident, and without which, they are, in the short-term, a danger to no-one but themselves.

trident 2

If pre-emptive steps are to be taken to discourage ‘wannabe’ nuclear powers, the time is now. As with the case of the Iraq War, one does not require WMD to disable the production of WMD, but rather, a well equipped conventional force carrying the moral authority to engage the backing of the international community.

In our proclamation of our nuclear rights, we have lost the moral and the legal right to intervene in other nations who are arming themselves with nuclear weapons. Further, we have just significantly undermined and harmed the one thing that has been keeping this world safe: the deterrent of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Brazil is now rumoured to be rethinking its position. Similarly, in 2013, Egypt, who were striving to secure a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the whole of the Middle East – a move which we ourselves allegedly ascribe to and support⁽¹º⁾ – finally walked out on NPT negotiation.

The Egyptian delegate stated: “We cannot continue to attend meetings and agree outcomes that do not get implemented yet to be expected to abide by the concessions we gave for this outcome.” ⁽¹¹⁾

We, the nuclear powers, have done much to harm global faith and trust in the NPT’s capacity to effectively rid the world of Nuclear Weapons⁽¹²⁾.

America needs to accept that it cannot be the world’s policeman on its own: it has neither the sustainable fire power, as was evident after Iraq 2003, nor the global support in its taking of unilateral actions taken in the face of otherwise successful and respected international treaties. It is imperative that both America and ourselves, the UK, strive to engage both the diplomatic support and the full backing of the world’s conventional military powers, if we are to genuinely enforce a global ban on WMD, and to include nuclear weapons⁽¹³⁾.

This support is not forthcoming due to the failure of the founding five nuclear powers to take visible steps to either disarm, or to conclude negotiations for disarmament⁽¹⁴⁾. This failure fuels a climate of international mistrust and defeat⁽¹⁵⁾.

Britain must use its moral authority to encourage America to take these steps, for the sake of re-establishing good faith, and for long-term global security.

In April 2016, North Korea claims to have succeeded in its submarine-launched ballistic missile tests: these claims are unconfirmed. North Korea went on to state if the USA ceased its own nuclear war exercises in the Korean Peninsula, North Korea would abandon further nuclear testing.⁽²²⁾ The USA has declined to do so.

North Korea is keen to emphasise to an increasingly concerned international community, that its nuclear intentions are wholly defensive; that they will not flex their nuclear muscles unless their sovereignty is threatened – second strike; that they are keen to pursue the aim of Nuclear Non-Proliferation and global stability.⁽²³⁾

Another camp, led by the Norwegians – and in circumstances where United Nations Security Council has been rendered impotent by the vetoing powers of the Nuclear Club – are determined to salvage the NPT in so far as they are able. In pursuit of this, and acting in reliance upon the legally-binding decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), 1996⁽¹⁶⁾, they are forwarding the grounds of international custom, and the humanitarian cost of nuclear weapons, namely, “The Humanitarian Initiative”, established in 2010⁽¹⁷⁾.

In keeping with the ICJ’s 1996 decision, this approach specifically requires the Initiative to direct its focus upon the moral argument for banning nuclear weapons, on the grounds of the humanitarian cost of nuclear war. In 2015: the Initiative had been signed and ratified by 156 of the 194 nations of the world ⁽¹⁸⁾.

The UK government are keen to dismiss the validity of moral and humanitarian argument as idealism. Further, Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary, states (2016):

“…on the one hand are those idealists who believe that unilateral disarmament will make us safer……on the other are those of us who recognise that the real world threats to the United Kingdom are growing not diminishing. So we must be realistic about the world in which we live.⁽¹⁹⁾”

It is the UK government who are idealistic and unrealistic about the world we live in, if they believe that we, the UK, can indefinitely obstruct the global community’s determination to implement an outright and legally enforceable ban on nuclear weapons, and their determination to enforce it.

Significantly, enforcement measures under consideration by The Humanitarian Initiative have included the imposing of economic and diplomatic sanctions against all nuclear power nations and in particular, the boycotting of trade with any company which engages in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

The effects of this upon our national industries are potentially devastating: Rolls-Royce in Derby, for one, is looking forward to the investment and jobs that come with the renewal of Trident. But the loss of that investment should Trident not go ahead, surely pales into insignificance in comparison to the loss that would be inflicted upon Rolls-Royce’s civil aerospace sector – which makes up 52% of Rolls-Royce’s  turnover according to its annual report 2015⁽²º⁾, should the 156 members of the signatory states of The Humanitarian Initiative boycott British nuclear-linked companies. Rolls Royce recently acquired, for example, a £1.2 billion contract from Indonesia⁽²¹⁾, themselves a signatory of The Humanitarian Initiative.

The Trident decision is of critical importance.

And we should not forget that Britain actually still has a choice to make.

The “Main Gate” decision is still subject to the vote of Parliament later this year; we cannot allow this to be a tick-box exercise. We can still choose to not renew Trident and to allow the current fleet to its demise over the next 20 years.

The UK is uniquely placed, above all other nations, to be a genuine world leader.

We need Britain need to step up and take a lead, to bridge the gap between the non nuclear powers and the nuclear powers: the haves and the have-nots – a divide that is increasingly fracturing global security and future cooperation.

We need to stop using our UN Security Council veto to obstruct international efforts to implement an outright ban on nuclear weapons: a resolution which we could then legally enforce against emergent nuclear weapons nations.

We need to use the moral authority we lend to the nuclear powers, such as America, to broker a timetabled programme on worldwide disarmament of the existing WMD nations, for the sake of long-term global security.

In years to come, the world will have far greater threats to deal with than nuclear weapons and notably, the impact of environmental crises. It is imperative that we create the global conditions in which we are able to work together.

We urgently need, today, to ask the question:

Does The UK Need Trident?

In actuality, we should also be asking:

Does The Rest of the World Need The UK To Let Trident Go?

And the answer to THAT question has to be a resounding: yes.


Sources & Further Reading

¹What cost a nuclear deterrent? – Britain doesn’t know yet (2016) 

²Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty, SDSR 2010

³Taking down the arguments against Trident, the Royal Navy

⁴Defense News (2015)


⁵Preventing Collapse: The NPT and the Ban on Nuclear Weapons, Reaching Critical Will (2013)

⁶The case for the Retention of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary (2016)

⁷Cf. Internation Court of Justice [ICJ], Advisory Opinion, 1996: the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons: Full Transcript, ICJ 

Case Review, International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC]

Summary of Proceedings, Wiki

⁸Norway, NATO and the NPT, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons 

⁹Enforcing compliance with the Non-proliferation Treaty, the Carnegie Endowment (2005)

¹ºUK National Reporting on the NPT Review Conference, 2015, S2: National Measures relating to Non-Proliferation

¹¹Egypt Stages Walkout Over Failure to Convene Mideast WMD Summit, the Nuclear Threat Initiative [NTI] (2013)


¹³Enforcing Compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Carnegie Endowment (2005)

¹⁴UK White Paper, 2006: the Future of the UK’s Nuclear Deterrent

The UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review [SDSR], 2015, p34 

The case for the retention of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary (2016)

¹⁵2015, NPT Conference Review Briefing Book, Reaching Critical Will

¹⁶See above; see also: Advisory Opinions:

(1) Legality of, the Maintenance and the Possible Replacement of the Trident Nuclear Missile System, Rabinda & Chinkin (2005) 

(2) UK’s Nuclear Deterrent: Current and Future Issues of Legality, Sands & Law (2006)

¹⁷At a glance, Wiki (2015)

The NPT and the Humanitarian Initiative: 2015 nd Beyond, Deep Cuts Working Paper (2015)

¹⁸E.g. The Humanitarian Initiative and India, Centre for Air Power Studies [CAPS] (2015)

¹⁹The case for the retention of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary, 2016

²⁰Annual Report 2015, Rolls Royce

²¹Worldwide Presence – Rolls Royce, 2015

²² North Korea ‘will halt’ nuclear tests if US stops S Korea exercises

²³ North Korea will not use nuclear weapons first, says Kim Jong-un


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