Size is important

The USA has released information about the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile

Yesterday the USA became the first nation in the world ever to release a precise inventory of the number of nuclear weapons it holds when Hillary Clinton gave her speech at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York. This may sound like a very small step on the road to global nuclear disarmament, but it is a significant one.

Without basic knowledge about the number of nuclear weapons in each country's nuclear arsenal it will be impossible to verify whether a nation is keeping to promises it has made to freeze or reduce the size of its arsenal. Disclosing such information is the first stage in building trust between nations, and setting a clear baseline for disarmament negotiations. As the British government stated back in 1998 during its last Strategic Defence Review, “Greater transparency about nuclear programmes also adds to international trust and security. ”

Pressure is now on the other nuclear weapon states to disclose the size of their nuclear arsenals. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of Atomic Scientists puts it nicely in his blog comments on the Clinton announcement: “Nuclear weapon states that do not disclose the size of their nuclear arsenals will now be seen as secretive and obstructing nuclear transparency and progress towards deep cuts and eventually disarmament.”

Once again it is Britain, as the US's closest nuclear ally, who should be right behind the USA issuing an announcement about its own warhead numbers. This should not be too hard – in the White Paper on Trident replacement published in 2006 the UK government announced that it would “reduce the maximum number of operationally available warheads from fewer than 200 to fewer than 160” by 2007. A definitive announcement in New York would demonstrate whether the UK has kept to its promise; shed some light on what has happened to the remaining 40 warheads, which are believed to be held as part of an arsenal of non-operationally available warheads; and show others that keeping the size of the nuclear arsenal secret serves no meaningful national security purpose in the post-Cold War era. The ball will then be in the court of the other nuclear states – especially China and Russia, which have remained opaque about their nuclear capabilities – to demonstrate similar transparency, and for the USA to provide further information about the types of weapon in its arsenal.

Another speaker at the Non-Proliferation Treaty conference yesterday was President Ahmadinejad of Iran, During Ahmadinejad's speech the British officials at the conference joined the predictable walk-out in protest about Iran's lack of transparency over its nuclear programme. Maybe the British delegates should also be asking themselves what they will be doing to lift the cloak of secrecy which covers British nuclear weapons.

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