Should Britain have nukes?

The United Kingdom has only one way to deliver its nuclear weapons: U.S.-built submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) called Tridents, which are carried on British Vanguard-class subs. These subs are aging and due to be decommissioned in 2024. Since the British government estimates it will take 17 years to design and build a new submarine, a ...

604308_trident_05.jpg
604308_trident_05.jpg

The United Kingdom has only one way to deliver its nuclear weapons: U.S.-built submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) called Tridents, which are carried on British Vanguard-class subs. These subs are aging and due to be decommissioned in 2024. Since the British government estimates it will take 17 years to design and build a new submarine, a decision looms and an unusual debate has arisen: should the U.K. even bother maintaining its own nuclear deterrent?

Britain's answer will almost certainly be yes, but the fact that there is a real debate at all is interesting. Detractors of Prime Minister Tony Blair's plan to extend the lifetime of the U.K.'s nuclear forces attack it from several different angles. Nearly everyone cites the expense: roughly £20 billion (~$39 billion) that they say could be better spent. Some maintain that Britain should set an example by giving up its own weapons—as they are obligated to do under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Other opponents say deterrence is an "unproven theory" that is "essentially flawed." Churches across the country have decried nuclear weapons as immoral.

But most of Blair's Labour party and the opposition Conservatives support the prime minister's plan, and together they have more than enough votes to push the proposal through. They argue that nuclear weapons are the "ultimate insurance" against unseen future threats, especially when the number of nuclear states seems set to increase. Plus, none of the other nuclear states show any sign of giving up their own nuclear weapons. So why should Britain?

The United Kingdom has only one way to deliver its nuclear weapons: U.S.-built submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) called Tridents, which are carried on British Vanguard-class subs. These subs are aging and due to be decommissioned in 2024. Since the British government estimates it will take 17 years to design and build a new submarine, a decision looms and an unusual debate has arisen: should the U.K. even bother maintaining its own nuclear deterrent?

Britain’s answer will almost certainly be yes, but the fact that there is a real debate at all is interesting. Detractors of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plan to extend the lifetime of the U.K.’s nuclear forces attack it from several different angles. Nearly everyone cites the expense: roughly £20 billion (~$39 billion) that they say could be better spent. Some maintain that Britain should set an example by giving up its own weapons—as they are obligated to do under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Other opponents say deterrence is an “unproven theory” that is “essentially flawed.” Churches across the country have decried nuclear weapons as immoral.

But most of Blair’s Labour party and the opposition Conservatives support the prime minister’s plan, and together they have more than enough votes to push the proposal through. They argue that nuclear weapons are the “ultimate insurance” against unseen future threats, especially when the number of nuclear states seems set to increase. Plus, none of the other nuclear states show any sign of giving up their own nuclear weapons. So why should Britain?

Then there are the implicit concerns, mostly unsaid. If Britain gave up its nuclear weapons, France would be the only European country to retain them. And many politicians in Britain, just like elsewhere, believe that nuclear weapons are their ticket to keeping a seat at the great-power table. At least for now, it seems, nukes are almost impossible to give up.

Eric Hundman is a science fellow at the Center for Defense Information. His research focuses on emerging technology, terrorism and nuclear policy, including the conventionalization of nuclear forces. He contributes a series of posts for Passport on nuclear technology called “Nuke Notes.”

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.