Britain's nuclear weapons are irrelevant to any existing and foreseeable threats posed by foreign states and there is an urgent need for a wider and more informed public and parliamentary debate about their replacement, according to a new study published by the Nuclear Education Trust (NET).
The NET report calls for deeper and more intelligent discussion on the justification for retaining and modernising nuclear weapons before the final decision on replacing Trident is made in 2016, which should cover their expense, their role in the current economic and international climate, and the risks of a nuclear accident and weapons proliferation.
"Britain's nuclear weapons should be subject to the same cost-effectiveness test and public scrutiny that all public expenditure has to be subjected to," concludes the report.
The NET study, 'The UK's National Defence Needs and International Nuclear Disarmament Responsibilities', was drawn up after consultation with a wide range of defence experts including former Defence Secretaries Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Lord Des Browne, former Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Mike Jackson, and Admiral Lord West.
Contributors to the study agreed that the UK's defence policy and procurement decisions should be more rigorously evidence-based, that the raison d'être of nuclear weapons has decreased since the end of the cold war, and that progress on international nuclear disarmament is a necessary and desirable goal.
They agreed that the Trident nuclear weapon system, which was not scrutinised in the last Strategic Defence and Security Review, must be included in the next review which will take place after the general election in 2015. The next review should take a more rigorous needs based approach than was undertaken in the last review in 2010, reflecting more clearly on both the likelihood and the impact of risks to the UK’s security, as well as foreign policy requirements and responsibilities.
The report recommends that the UK Government should focus on utilising its world diplomatic skills, rather than its world military reach, to reduce security threats and promote disarmament. It lists specific actions the government could take in the near term, such as attending international conferences on nuclear weapons, including engagement with the current initiative on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons; helping secure definitive progress towards disarmament at April's P5 meeting on nuclear weapons in China; and by publicly supporting negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
"Nuclear weapons represent a twentieth-century failure: they are the cold war's unfinished business which should be solved by this generation," says the report.
One of the contributors to the report, Professor Michael Clarke, Director General of the Royal United Services Institute, described the case for replacing Trident as “utterly fallacious”.
“If you told the chancellor of the exchequer that the Treasury should fund 20 hospitals just in case there was a pandemic he would laugh at you. Why should this argument be any more credible when it comes to nuclear weapons?", he said.
Declaration of interest: Peter Burt, Research Manager at Nuclear Information Service, is a Trustee of the Nuclear Education Trust.