Anglo-French nuclear patrols – a step towards disarmament

The Guardian has reported that the French government has offered to create a joint UK-French nuclear deterrent by sharing submarine patrols with the Royal Navy.

Although British and French officials have discussed how the scheme could work, Britain has so far opposed the idea on the grounds that such pooling of sovereignty would be politically unacceptable, although Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy have agreed to increase other forms of nuclear collaboration between the two nations. "We have agreed [to] a degree of cooperation that is, I think, greater than we have had previously but we will retain, as will France, our independent nuclear deterrent," according to Brown.

The notion that British sovereignty would be compromised by sharing nuclear patrols with France is rather strange, given that the UK depends upon missiles leased from the USA to deliver its nuclear warheads and requires American expertise and components to build these warheads. The British government has agreed that its armed forces will be inter-operable with those of the US, and under the terms of the Polaris Sales Agreement the UK's nuclear weapons are assigned for NATO use. As George Monbiot has convincingly argued, the idea that the UK could launch a nuclear attack without the blessing of the US is ludicrous.

Nevertheless, the possibility of arranging shared patrols between British and French nuclear weapons submarines opens up interesting opportunities for taking steps towards disarmament without compromising the security of either nation, and should be explored further.

Shared patrols would allow the submarines of each nation to be taken out of the routine of ‘continuous at sea deterrence’ for set periods. This would reduce the total number of nuclear weapons deployed at any instant in time – which, by any standard, can only be a good thing – and could eventually allow each nation to withdraw some nuclear warheads from service as part of a phased programme for gradually reducing the role of nuclear weapons in defence policy.

It would also extend submarine lives, allowing Britain to postpone a decision on whether to develop an expensive successor to the Vanguard class submarines at a time when significant cuts in public spending are forecast.

Perhaps most importantly, the heads of state of each nation could be expected to have considerable reservations about launching a nuclear strike at the request of their peers across the Channel unless their own nation faced the same immense threat. This reduces the chance that nuclear weapons would be used in anything other than the most extreme circumstances.

Joint Anglo-French nuclear patrols would demonstrate the kind of tangible progress towards disarmament that is essential if the proliferation of nuclear weapons is to be controlled. The future of Britain’s nuclear weapons should be included in the defence review that will take place after the election, and the option of taking submarines out of the continuous at sea deterrence cycle – either through shared patrols with the French or by other means – should be given serious consideration.

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. More information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.