UK disarmament approach ‘may be difficult to sustain’ beyond 2015

The UK’s current twin-track strategy of retaining and modernising its nuclear weapons while at the same time taking 'multilateral' steps towards nuclear disarmament may prove “difficult to sustain”, according to an international expert on nuclear non-proliferation.

In a report published by the BASIC Trident Commission Professor John Simpson of Southampton University, an advisor to the UK government delegation to Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conferences, argues that although the UK's possession of nuclear weapons has been criticised internationally, its status as a nuclear-weapon state has given it a “distinctive voice within that elite group” to argue the case for more positive attitudes towards disarmament and global nuclear non-proliferation.  However, maintaining this position beyond the next NPT Review Conference in 2015 will “have its challenges”.

The UK's plans for “like-for-like” replacement of the Trident nuclear system have been balanced by a declaration of planned reductions in the number of operational warheads and missiles, according to Professor Simpson, giving the UK a “minimal deterrent capability”.  However, increasing challenges to the non-proliferation regime, a lack of faith in the disarmament intentions of the nuclear-weapon states, and the limited scope for the UK to make further reductions to its “minimum deterrent” mean that the UK is likely to find it hard to sustain its deterrence / disarmament strategy beyond 2015.  

The 2015 NPT Review Conference will be a critical point for disarmament initiatives, as the nuclear-weapon states will have to convince non nuclear-weapon states that they are collectively pursuing the disarmament and non-proliferation goals that they signed up to at the last Review Conference in 2015.  Although the UK has taken a “forward leaning” approach to disarmament and has shown leadership in encouraging the Permanent Five (P5) members of the United Nations Security Council to address their NPT obligations, “the current security case for sustaining the UK nuclear deterrent is weak”, and failure to engage in immediate nuclear disarmament “lays the UK open to the charge of “do as I say, not as I do” in the non-proliferation context”.

Professor Simpson concludes that the future of the NPT disarmament process may depend upon the success of the current dialogue among P5 members on disarmament at technical and political levels, requiring transparency and trust-building among the nuclear weapon states, taking forward experimental work on the verification of nuclear disarmament, and reaching out to engage in discussion with states that do not have nuclear weapons.

A second briefing published by BASIC, 'Beyond The Trident Alternatives Review', prepared by Dr Nick Ritchie of the University of York, argues that the UK is currently facing a unique opportunity for informed debate on nuclear disarmament and could play a major global role in showing leadership on nuclear disarmament.

The briefing presents a spectrum of nuclear deterrence options which the UK could adopt, advocating a 'reduced readiness' posture for Trident submarines which, since the end of the Cold War, have no longer needed to be on continuous nuclear patrols.  Dr Ritchie argues that such a posture would save money from defence budgets, show global leadership in taking steps towards nuclear disarmament, and re-ignite a global push towards a world free of nuclear weapons.



Declaration of Interest:  Dr Nick Ritchie, author of 'Beyond The Trident Alternatives Review', is a member of the Nuclear Information Service Board of Directors.

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