My Oxford colleague Blake Ewing makes an engaging case in favour of the UK pursuing unilateral nuclear disarmament — that is, scrapping the planned replacement programme for the Royal Navy’s Vanguard-class submarines, which currently carry the Trident D5 missile — as a solution to the country’s fiscal travails.
Blake and I agree on many things. The folly of cutting the BBC World Service, one of the UK’s unique sources of global influence, is one. The wisdom — or lack thereof — of pursuing or retaining nuclear weapons as a status symbol is another. The merits of avoiding doctoral dissertation work by engaging in procrastinatory blogging would appear to be a third. However, on the question of unilateral disarmament, our advice to George Osborne, Philip Hammond and the top man Himself diverges sharply.
Mr Ewing signs off with the question, “So why keep the nukes?” To that, the best answer appears to be….for all of the sound strategic reasons that have always underpinned nuclear possession. No country that lacks a secure second-strike nuclear capability can deter – or even resist coercion by – a country that possesses such a capability. Since 1945, there has been formal sovereignty, as written down by the UN, and actual sovereignty. The UK was the third lucky member of the latter club, and remaining in it is cheap at the price.
Russia – the only potentially hostile major power in the UK’s region – continues to deploy thousands of nuclear warheads, and has just launched a new class of ballistic missile submarine. Moscow has attacked two small countries in continental Europe in the last five years (Estonia via a concerted cyber coercion campaign in 2007, Georgia via a major ground invasion in 2008); routinely drives strategic bombers around UK airspace; and parked an aircraft carrier group in the Moray Firth earlier in 2012. At a more general level, the international system is returning to great power security competition, now that multipolarity is replacing the post-Cold War unipolar moment, and how that future will turn out is uncertain – but one thing that the last 67 years have shown is that nuclear deterrence is a fairly effective way of stopping major power security tension turning into all-out conventional war. Meanwhile, proliferation has been ongoing since the 1990s, and looks unlikely to ever meaningfully reverse – for the obvious reason that lots of countries with tough security environments have twigged that the Bomb is the best safeguard they can have. If you were an Iranian strategic planner, what conclusions would your draw about the respective fates of other states singled out for post-9/11 pariah status by Uncle Sam – North Korea made it to the nuclear finish line, Iraq and Libya foolishly gave up? Finally, if there’s one unifying theme throughout the UK’s diverse military experiences of 1956, 1982 and 2003, it’s that no country with the latent capacity to do otherwise should ever rely wholly on the United States.
Those advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament on the UK’s part – and note here that the discussion is not about multilateral disarmament, which would be an altogether more appealing proposition, were it ever to be achievable – need to actually present a compelling strategic rationale. Simply saying “oh, aren’t they silly and old fashioned status symbols!” is not sufficient. Moreover, those who quote the costs of replacing the Vanguard class over a 46-year period unfairly stack the deck, unless they also do the same for hospitals, schools, social security, or DfID. UK public spending was some £711 billion in 2011; a saving of £1.86 billion (0.26%) would certainly have been welcome, but it’s actually a pretty paltry reward for foregoing the ultimate backstop of national survival. When viewed in that light, the supreme national insurance policy is rather good value.
David Blagden is a DPhil student in International Relations at Oxford.