Perpetuating Uncertainty: Trident and the Strategic Defence and Security Review

Tim Street | ICAN-UK | October 2010

Issue:Global militarisation

Above all, the UK government’s new Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) confirms the intention to retain and then replace the UK's nuclear weapons, though the final decision has been put off until 2016.[1] David Cameron thus confirmed to parliament that he will be 'steaming through' with the decision on the initial design phase for replacing Trident this year.[2] The SDSR also announces warhead reductions and so-called 'value for money' measures, packaged to make Britain appear as if it were a 'responsible' nuclear state, contributing to 'multilateral disarmament' whilst reducing costs for the taxpayer.[3] Such mythmaking must be resisted. Firstly, because Trident can never be 'value for money' as it is has no value- military or otherwise- yet currently costs over £2 billion a year to run, whilst at least £700 million will be spent over the next five years on its replacement.[4] Trident thus not only takes money away from education- at a time when universities are facing 40% cuts to their teaching budgets and the NHS- expected to find £20 billion in savings by 2014, but makes the world a far more dangerous place.[5]

The only way the UK can act responsibly as a nuclear weapon state is by realising its legally-binding obligations to scrap all its nuclear weapons and begin negotiations on a global abolition treaty, as required by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). States without nuclear weapons argue that unless states with nuclear weapons- such as the UK- continue to resist their commitments under the NPT and put off making serious advances towards the total elimination of their arsenals, nuclear weapons will, inevitably, spread. Brazilian diplomat Orlando Ribeiro therefore points out that reductions in the number of nuclear weapons alone will 'not lead to disarmament because qualitative arms races will continue'.[6] Look, for instance, at how the UK spends billions on construction programmes at AWEs Aldermaston and Burghfield, enabling the testing, design and construction of a successor warhead.[7]

In order to explain why the UK continues to cling on to Trident- a Cold War relic with no military utility- which wastes billions in a time of austerity, we must consider Trident's political significance within the US-NATO military alliance. This will enable us to evaluate the potential for the UK to move away from the failed policies of yesteryear and towards a foreign policy based on disarmament, diplomacy and sustainable security.

What's stopping the UK from disarming?

Baroness Shirley Williams, a Lib Dem peer, enthusiastically welcomed the SDSR, arguing that the UK ‘is now leading the nuclear powers (P5) towards disarmament, essential to a more secure and less dangerous world’.[8] The first half of this statement is surely an exaggeration- designed to develop a feel-good-factor about the UK taking such limited measures whilst vindicating Lib Dem policy. Still, by casting disarmament and diplomacy- not military prowess- as a means by which the UK can act responsibly and show leadership, Williams indicates a potential new global role for Britain.

This is especially relevant now given that, according to the new National Security Strategy, the UK faces 'no major state threat at present and no existential threat to our security, freedom or prosperity.'[9] Furthermore, the UK’s armed forces are apparently no longer capable, following SDSR defence cuts, of launching overseas missions on the scale of Afghanistan or Iraq.[10] So the Lib Dems, who have a good track record of opposing Trident and supporting a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) - a global treaty which would ban nuclear weapons permanently and ensure their elimination- should be encouraged to continue speaking out.

However, the idea that Britain, given its current military and political alliances, could ‘lead’ on disarmament is persuasively questioned by George Monbiot. In an article reflecting on the government's addiction to nuclear weapons, Monbiot argues that the one force that could finally 'kill' Trident is the US. For only once the US has begun to dismantle its (over 9,600) nuclear weapons and 'ordered' the UK to follow suit would such disarmament occur.[11] Recalcitrant parliamentary and public opinion in the UK (54% of whom now want to scrap Trident) thus 'counts for nothing'.[12] One could also add world public opinion into this formulation, given that a global abolition treaty has the support of two-thirds of all governments and members of the public everywhere.[13]

US intransigence in the face of repeated international calls to disarm was exemplified by remarks made by Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Rose Gottemoeller’s October speech to the UN’s First Committee on Disarmament. Gottemoeller referred to the idea of beginning negotiations on a NWC now as 'an impractical leap'.[14] Moreover, whilst Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton profess to want a world without nuclear weapons, they state that ‘this may not be achieved in our lifetime or successive lifetimes'.[15]

Yet, in a June House of Lords debate, Baroness Williams correctly drew attention to the fact that, at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, 'the great bulk of non-nuclear powers decided to press for a nuclear weapons convention to abolish nuclear weapons completely by 2025'. In response, a Conservative spokesperson echoed the US position in stating that 'a whole series of things need to be done before one comes to the happy situation where the nuclear world is disarmed and a convention could then get full support. If we try to rush to a convention first of all, we might end up delaying the detailed work that is needed on the path to get there'.[16] The baleful logic expressed here can be summarised as- ‘we can only negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons once they've been eliminated’. Following the final document of the 2010 NPT, which recognised the importance of an NWC as endorsed in the UN Secretary General’s five-point plan for disarmament, one might have hoped that nuclear weapon states would have taken their responsibilities to the international community- and international law- more seriously.[17]

Perhaps one reason why the US and UK seem incapable of doing so, is that, whilst some in elite circles may genuinely believe nuclear disarmament to be desirable, its realisation is incompatible with another, much more deeply entrenched idea within the psyche of the powerful- an idea repeated by Hillary Clinton in a September speech to the Council on Foreign Relations- that the 'United States can, must, and will lead in this new century'.[18] Thus behind Obama's surface rhetoric of 'change', conventional Western thinking is still based on narrow, exclusive security concerns- the US 'control paradigm'.[19] So, as Tariq Ali observes, whilst Obama is perceived as a break with the depredations of the Bush administration 'only the mood music has changed'.[20]

A subservient or independent foreign policy?

Baroness Williams is a member of the Top Level Group of Parliamentarians for nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which also contains several former defence ministers.[21] The Top Level Group believes that UK and European statespersons can have an impact internationally, by persuading US Senators that they should ratify treaties such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) - which the UK and France ratified in 1998- as part of a step-by-step approach to disarmament. At present, however, getting even common sense legislation such as the bilateral US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) - seen as the necessary precursor to CTBT ratification- through the Senate is a painfully slow process, producing conservative and even retrograde agreements.

Any residual ambition the Obama administration had of accelerating disarmament has thus been stymied by reactionary vested interests keen to hamper the Democrats before the November mid-term elections and ensure investment and jobs in their constituencies’ military-industrial complexes (some of which are Democratic) are preserved. This has led to Obama’s recent call for $80 billion to upgrade the US's nuclear arms complex (described as the largest funding request since the Cold War) and the planned investment, over the next decade, of 'well over $100 billion in nuclear delivery systems'.[22]

In this ultra-partisan atmosphere, any voices of sanity to counteract the bullying and obstruction of the far-right are welcome. The Top Level Group thus employs political common sense (relevant to its incrementalist logic) by turning their diplomatic skills to face the US Congress. Their strategy appears to be based on the idea that even small moves in the US nuclear weapons posture- from longstanding recidivism to glacial disarmament- will enable the UK to act. Witness, for example, the speed with which Foreign Secretary William Hague fell into line following the US announcing its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. Hague revealed for the first time the size of the UK’s nuclear arsenal whilst, in the SDSR, the UK gave an assurance that it ‘will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states parties to the NPT’.[23]

Yet, as Peter Burt points out, because the assurance ‘would not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations’ this ‘potentially leaves out states such as North Korea and Iran’. As with the US’s own new declaratory posture, this assurance may be revoked ‘if future threats or proliferation of nuclear weapons make it necessary to do so’. [24] For Zia Mian, the crucial question- applicable to both the US and UK- is therefore, who determines whether a non-nuclear weapon state is in compliance with its obligations or not? Judging by the US’s responses to such questions, Mian concludes that the answer to this question is ‘the US alone’, whilst reserving itself the right to enforce its decision militarily, in total violation of the UN Charter.[25]

This understanding of the US-UK power dynamic- the infamously one-sided ‘special relationship’- is an unquestioned, and perhaps unquestionable, fact of life for many MPs. Former defence minister Eric Joyce, reflecting on Ed Miliband’s position on Trident replacement at Labour’s annual conference, thus argued that Britain currently has no independent foreign policy and is simply locked into ‘US electoral cycles’.[26] Similarly, former Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne has commented that members of the Western alliance will only taken action on nuclear weapons when the US has told them what to do.[27] The British elite are quite aware of the damage being done by such servility, but tend to only venture honest appraisals when talking to themselves. Thus Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, giving evidence in 2009 to the Foreign Affairs Committee, argued that Tony Blair's 'subservience' to the US over Iraq ran against British national interests.[28]

Hurd's description here chimes with Mark Curtis's analysis that rather than being a 'poodle' the UK has become 'willingly subservient' and now freely chooses to support US actions. Curtis argues that a change occurred under Tony Blair, whereby Britain became 'in its major foreign policies' largely a 'US client state while its military has become an effective US proxy force'.[29] With regards to Trident it has been conclusively demonstrated that the UK's nuclear weapons absolutely depend on continued US technical and political support so that, in Blair's own words, it is 'inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent alone, without the US'.[30]

The debate preceding the publication of the SDSR sheds some light on how British servility is playing out regarding Trident replacement. In September, a leaked letter from Defence Secretary Liam Fox to David Cameron expressed grave concerns over the cuts facing the UK military budget, expected to be around 10-20%. The eventual reduction was a mere 8%- so that Britain still has the fourth largest defence budget in the world.[31] Just days after the MoD leak, Fox reported back from a meeting with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates that 'Britain would keep the deterrent and other capabilities valued by Washington'. Gates was also reported as saying that the US wanted Britain to keep its deterrent as it did not want ‘sole responsibility’ for providing a nuclear umbrella to NATO countries.[32] Fox used all his cunning to make this helpful US opinion known as pressure was building on the MoD from the public and civil society to include Trident in the SDSR and from the Treasury to make deep cuts to its budget. Following this, Hillary Clinton herself waded in on the argument, stating that the US was ‘worried’ about the UK’s planned defence cuts- primarily because it appeared that defence spending could fall below NATO’s required standard of 2% of GDP.[33]

Who's in favour of disarming NATO?

If we are to understand why senior US politicians feel so compelled to pronounce on the internal budgetary affairs of a foreign country, it is therefore imperative that we turn to the politics of NATO. NATO is presently preparing its new, ultra-secretive, strategic concept. German representatives are pushing for nuclear disarmament to be given a prominent place in the final document. Germany is currently home to an estimated 20 NATO nukes, with the rest of NATO's European 180 B-61 thermonuclear-gravity bombs based in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.[34] According to a 2006 opinion poll, almost 70% of people in European countries that currently host US nuclear weapons want a Europe free of nuclear weapons.[35] The New York Times reports that Germany's call for disarmament has not gone down well in Paris, which opposes NATO 'having any role or influence in disarmament issues, fearing that it could undermine France’s sovereignty'.[36]

Britain- whose own NATO/US nuclear weapons were silently withdrawn between 1996 and 2008 has, meanwhile, declined to comment on the matter.[37] Fascinatingly, at the same time as Berlin has been trying to extricate itself from the nuclear balance of terror (for example, by retiring its Tornado fighter jets, and instead deploying the Eurofighter, which can't carry B-61s) it is reported that Paris and London have begun serious discussions about sharing nuclear submarine patrols and testing facilities.[38] The need to consider such moves on the part of France, and more particularly the UK, is clearly more pressing now given the parlous state of their finances, whilst circumventing CTBT obligations. By sharing the burden of having to constantly deploy nuclear submarines at sea, the old enemies will save on the costs of building and maintenance.

Perhaps more importantly, Germany's disarmament initiatives will be resisted and the US- who enjoys the additional international legitimacy that is conferred by its allies remaining nuclear-armed- will be appeased. The famous phrase, attributed to Lord Ismay, NATO's first Secretary General, that the alliance was founded to 'keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in' remains salient. These days, of course, China is also handy for justifying NATO expansion and, if we listen to our Prime Minister, Trident replacement.[39]

In his first speech as Labour leader, Ed Miliband disavowed the invasion of Iraq (but not the NATO-led occupation of Afghanistan) and spoke of how ‘this generation wants to change our foreign policy so that it's always based on values, not just alliances’.[40] Trident's cost to the British people is clear- £100 billion over its lifetime- its value, at a time of massive and 'regressive' public spending cuts, is also clear.[41] Trident should therefore be the first cut made by this government. The problem is that those in power who do value Trident, value it because they value highly the US-led NATO alliance. If Ed Miliband, or any other British leader, acted as if Britain were a sovereign nation in its foreign policy and scrapped Trident, the UK's role as the 'spear-carrier for pax Americana' would immediately be called into question.[42] But by scrapping Trident and supporting a Nuclear Weapons Convention, the UK would find a new role as a leader for disarmament and diplomacy, helping to create new international political constituencies alongside the 130 nations who want a global abolition treaty, and a more secure and equitable world, now.

(by Tim Street, Coordinator, ICAN-UK, with thanks to Alicia Dressman)


About the author: Tim Street is Coordinator with ICAN-UK

Image source: Duncan~

[1]                   ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review’, p.5,

[2]     ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’, Hansard, 19/10/10,

[3]     The number of warheads aboard each sub will be reduced from 48 to 40, the total number of operationally available nuclear warheads reduced from fewer than 160 to no more than 120 and the overall number of nuclear weapons that the UK has will be reduced from around 225 to not more than 180 by the mid-2020s.

[4]                   ‘The Future of the British Nuclear Deterrent’, House of Commons Library, p.16, and ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’, Hansard, 19/10/10,

[5]                   ‘NHS budget rise will feel like cut says thinktank’, The Guardian, and ‘Universities alarmed by 40% cut to teaching budget’, The Guardian,


[6]     ‘International perspectives on the Nuclear Posture Review’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,

[7]     ‘Atomic Weapons Establishment’, Hansard, 09/09/09,

[8]     ‘Defence review significant step towards disarmament’, Liberal Democrats News,

[9]     ‘A Strong Britain in an age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy’, p.15

[10]             ‘National security strategy's real test will come when the next shock arrives’, The Daily Telegraph,

[11]             United States Discloses Size of Nuclear Weapons Stockpile’, Federation of American Scientists,

[12]    ‘War with the ghosts’,,

[13]            ‘Publics around the World Favor International Agreement To Eliminate All Nuclear Weapons’, World Public Opinion 2008,

[14]                 ‘Remarks by Rose E. Gottemoeller’, US Mission to the UN,

[15]    ‘Remarks at the United States Institute for Peace’, Hillary Clinton,

[16]    ‘Nuclear Non-Proliferation’, House of Lords debate,

[17]    2010 NPT RevCon Final Document, p.20,

[18]    ‘Clinton pledges another century of American global leadership’, Foreign Policy,

[19]    Why we’re losing the war on terror, Paul Rogers, 2008, p.x

[20]               ‘Only the mood music has changed’, Tariq Ali,,

[21]    Top Level Group,

[22]    Phil Stewart, 'Obama wants $80 billion to upgrade nuclear arms complex', Reuters, 'The New START Treaty- Maintaining a Strong Nuclear Deterrent', White House,

[23]    ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’, UK Mission to the UN,

[24]    ‘Delay to Trident replacement’, Nuclear Information Service,

[25]            ‘Questions to ask the US about the negative security assurance offered in the US Nuclear Posture Review’, NPT News in Review,

[26]            ‘Ed Miliband wants Trident rethink - ex-defence minister’, BBC,

[27]    Comments made during a speech at 'A World without Nuclear Weapons', The Royal Society, March 2010

[28]    The British Political Approach to UK-US Relations,,,

[29]    Web of Deceit, Mark Curtis, 2003, pp.112-114

[30]    John Ainslie, The Future of the British bomb, 2005, p.10 and A Journey, Tony Blair, 2010, p.636

[31]            ‘Defence review: Cameron unveils armed forces cuts’, BBC,


[32]            ‘UK to Retain Nukes, Defense Secretary Tells US’, Nuclear Threat Initiative,

[33]          ‘Hillary Clinton says US worried over UK defence budget’, BBC,

[34]               ‘Nuclear weapons likely to stay in Germany’, Spiegel Online,

[35]                Nuclear Weapons in Europe: Survey Results in Six European Countries, STRATCOM,

[36]            ‘NATO Document Addresses Nuclear Disarmament’, New York Times,

[37]                ‘No Nukes at Lakenheath’, Arms Control Wonk,

[38]            ‘What to Do About Europe's Secret Nukes’, TIME, and ‘Britain and France could share nuclear testing site’, The Daily Telegraph,

[39]             ‘Cameron Says China Uncertainty Requires U.K. to Maintain Nuclear Deterrent’, Bloomberg,

[40]          ‘Labour conference: Ed Miliband speech in full’, The Guardian,

[41]          ‘Spending review cuts will hit poorest harder, says IFS’, The Guardian,

[42]               ‘The rise and fall of the NPT: an opportunity for Britain’, Michael MccGwire,, p.134



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