A ground-breaking study into how the UK's military community views nuclear weapons and disarmament has highlighted significant concerns about the costs and role of Trident. The funding crisis facing the Ministry of Defence means that spending on nuclear weapons is increasingly seen as unjustifiable when conventional equipment is needed and many in the armed forces have lost their jobs.
The findings of the research study (available to download at the bottom of this article), which was undertaken jointly by the Nuclear Education Trust and Nuclear Information Service, highlighted a diverse range of views drawn from interviews with ex-services personnel, both in favour of and opposed to nuclear weapons. “The military are split on this issue as never before”, the director of a defence think-tank told the study team.
The study was based on interviews with a range of ex-services personnel, up to and including former Chiefs of Staff, and reflects a wider concern amongst serving top-ranking officers that the government is not making the right choices about the nation’s security.
The research team obtained information through unattributable interviews with a range of ex-services personnel conducted over an eight month period from July 2014 – February 2015.
Many of those interviewed were worried that spending on nuclear weapons does not meet current defence needs or priorities at a time when the new government is facing important decisions on defence and nuclear weapons. The next Strategic Defence and Security Review is expected in autumn 2015 and the 'Main Gate' decision on replacing Trident submarines is scheduled to be taken in early 2016.
The research suggested that the ex-military personnel interviewed were unclear about many aspects of the UK’s nuclear weapons programme, including its costs, purpose and credibility. “The Trident system is hugely expensive. The question is, is it disproportionately so?”, said an ex-Army interviewee, while a former officer from the Royal Navy asked “Who are we deterring from what?”
Many interviewees stated that nuclear weapons do not meet the UK’s security needs, and saw nuclear weapons as political 'status symbols' rather than being military in nature. This raised questions about the strategic direction the UK is taking in international affairs and the need to resolve underlying issues relating to Britain's role and status in the world. “Apart from maintaining its political position, it is unclear what the UK’s nuclear weapons are for. Do we need them to defend the UK?” asked a former Army Major.
Other findings included a common feeling that there has been a reduction in the understanding of and interest in nuclear weapons by senior decision-makers, who participate less in military exercises involving possible nuclear scenarios. Likewise, there was seen to have been a deterioration in relevant skills and understanding within the Ministry of Defence and the defence industry, and a decline in training within the military itself.
Speaking at the report launch Major General Patrick Cordingley, former Commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade (Desert Rats) said: “Strategic nuclear weapons have no military use. It would seem the Government wishes to replace Trident simply to remain a nuclear power alongside the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council. This is misguided and flies in the face of public opinion; we have more to offer than nuclear bombs”.
Admiral Lord Alan West, former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, said: “The NET and NIS research into attitudes of the British military (retired for practical reasons) to nuclear weapons and disarmament is useful work adding to a relatively small number of documents from public debate relating to the replacement of the Vanguard Class Submarines.
“Having said that, there is nothing particularly startling in the results. The vast majority support maintenance of a minimum deterrent and think running on Trident is the best option. There is a feeling that the Treasury should pay for the capital costs of replacement as the deterrent is not a war- fighting weapon but rather of political last resort".
The British American Security Information Council (BASIC) has published a complemantary report to the NET / NIS study which analyses on-the-record comments from senior military figures.
We are delighted to offer this report for free, but please consider making a donation to Nuclear Information Service to help us cover the costs of funding this study and the other materials and information services that we provide.
Download the report on British military attitudes to nuclear weapons and disarmament here: