It is clear that the Nuclear Information Service’s latest report – ‘Trouble Ahead: Risks and Rising Costs in the UK Nuclear Weapons Programme’ – is a vital reality check on our thinking about nuclear weapons.
The report does not just highlight major problems with the costs and logistics of renewing Trident. It highlights a problem with the very way in which the UK government understands nuclear warfare.
It is very easy to talk about nuclear weapons in abstract terms. The issue is often reduced to a ‘should we or shouldn’t we’ debate. It is a debate that involves some very big questions. Do we want nuclear weapons? Would we ever actually push the button? Are nuclear weapons moral?
Even when we do start to talk about issues such as financial and technical costs, this is typically a more general issue of what we as a country should spend our cash on. Do we care more about bombs or food banks? Less common is any detailed discussion about whether this country can actually afford these weapons. Or whether we have the technical capacity to build and maintain a programme.
There is a tendency to talk about nuclear weapons as if their possession was a given. The detail, the logistics, and the costs: these factors are often overlooked.
Instead, a lot of policymakers tend to assume that if the UK wants nuclear arms, we will have them. And if this costs more than we thought, then that is little more than an inconvenience to the wider goal of establishing what nuclear strategy should be.
But there are lots of things we want that we can’t have. Here is where reality kicks in.
There are no blank cheques in politics, even on nuclear weapons. It would be very easy to argue that even this report’s costings for Trident – which puts the price tag significantly higher than the UK government has done – represent only a small percentage of the UK’s annual defence budget. This is a price that some would think is more than worth paying to be a nuclear state.
But we also cannot ignore that the UK is in austerity. So as this report crucially points out: we either make Trident fit the money, or we take money from elsewhere to fit the programme.
This is a process that will require difficult decisions. For that, we need to know exactly what is happening to Trident.
This report calls for a full political review. This review is essential. It is also controversial. It would require a high degree of transparency and could reveal details about the programme that we would rather keep secret.
In particular, a review could highlight core weaknesses in the government’s ability to deliver Trident, undermining the UK’s nuclear credibility. Simply put, you do not let other people know that your nuclear weapons system might be in trouble. Secrecy is extremely important in terms of national security.
But this reports suggests that the same national security could be at risk from a flawed programme. Trident’s failure would create a massive threat. This includes jobs. People argue that we need Trident to preserve employment. If Trident cannot work out, however, those jobs are still at stake.
If this programme cannot be delivered, we need to know. Secrecy is based on trust: trust that the government will do the best thing to secure the country. This report, however, raises a serious question mark over whether renewed Trident – as it stands – can secure us. Only a full review will establish how serious the issue is and what threats we face.
The report highlights that this decision is more than a practical assessment of costs. This situation involves much wider choices about what UK nuclear policy should be.
If we had to scale down Trident to meet our purse, what part of our nuclear or conventional doctrine would we be prepared to give up? Changes in our practical capability mean changes in our conceptualisation of what deterrence is. We need a clear strategy for what that could look like.
The report gives us another reality check: this time, on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The NPT is the key international agreement calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. As part of this treaty, the UK is allowed to temporarily keep its nuclear stockpiles on the proviso that it will eventually give them up. In return, states that do not have nuclear weapons agree never to develop them – but only if nuclear states like the UK get rid of theirs.
Policymakers can often talk about nuclear weapons as if the UK were not part of the NPT. They talk as if our options were limitless. But the UK is (technically) committed to nuclear elimination.
There are lots of reasons why the UK would not want to abandon its nukes. It is argued that we need these weapons to defend ourselves against a nuclear threat.
It is also argued that eliminating nuclear weapons is impossible. We cannot ‘forget’ how to make nuclear weapons and so they will always be there.
There is yet another argument about the way in which spending on Trident sends an important message to NATO that the UK is fulfilling its international security responsibilities.
Yet the reality is that – whether we think these arguments are right or wrong – the UK is signed up to an agreement that says we will not possess these weapons. That is fact.
Failing to follow through on the NPT has serious implications. The NPT relies on a bargain that other countries will not proliferate if we eliminate. If we do not, there is no incentive for those other countries not to build nuclear weapons.
This situation creates a threat. Some people have claimed that the UK does not need nuclear weapons because it does not currently face any nuclear danger. If the NPT falls apart and new nuclear states emerge, however, then we may very much find ourselves facing such a menace.
In that situation – and if the Trident programme is in as bad a state as this report suggests – we are in trouble.
Those who support nuclear deterrence would also face another problem – if the NPT fails the UK would need even more nuclear weapons to deter any new nuclear threat. But if we cannot afford our ‘ideal’ version of Trident, we definitely cannot afford an even bigger nuclear programme.
If we cannot deliver Trident, then we cannot let the NPT break down. But saving the NPT requires eliminating nuclear weapons.
Conveniently, this option is also the most cost effective solution to the Trident problem laid out in the NIS report.
But even if we do not support the elimination of our nuclear arms, this report shows that something does not add up in terms of Trident. The evidence in this report makes an extremely strong case that there is something seriously problematic about this programme. We cannot clearly deliver Trident on its current terms.
As such, the UK government needs to abandon out-dated and unhelpful ways of thinking about nuclear warfare. And it needs to be proactive – not only in being honest about the limitations of this programme, but in being open to new ideas about what nuclear deterrence can look like.
Dr Bentley is Reader in International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Director of the Centre of International Public Policy (CIPP).