Free Scotland February 2005|
DECISION TIME FOR BRITISH NUCLEAR WEAPONS
In December 2003 the Defence White paper said that
a decision on whether to replace Trident was likely to be needed in the life of
the next Westminster Parliament. This was repeated by Geoff Hoon in the House
of Commons in May 2004. It is important to note that the statements did not say
"what will replace Trident", but said "whether to replace Trident".
This means that the next Parliament is expected to consider whether Britain will
continue to have nuclear weapons in the long term.
The hull life of Vanguard
class submarines is 25 years and it would take at least 12 years to design and
build a successor so a decision on a replacement is expected by 2008. Those involved
in the peace movement would like to see Trident scrapped now and we do not want
Britain to keep its nuclear weapons for another decade. However, if a decision
was made in 2008 not to replace Trident, then it would be difficult to justify
the ongoing expenditure in future years. Such a decision is likely to lead to
a nuclear-weapons free Britain within a few years.
The MoD may try to delay
the major decision by extending the life of Trident. This is currently happening
in the US. However stretching the life of the system has its own problems and
is expensive. Modifying Polaris into Chevaline cost far more than had been budgeted.
In the 1990s there were substantial problems with the hulls and the reactors on
British Polaris submarines during their final years of service. If the government
took on a major life-extension programme, they would still have to decide to do
this by 2008. So the next parliament will have to decide whether to (a) replace
Trident, or (b) not replace it, or (c) extend the life of Trident.
who will make this decision will be elected at the next General Election, expected
in May 2005. It may be appropriate initially to focus, not just on the stance
that individuals and parties will take on this issue, but also on a commitment
to holding a full public consultation and debate during the next parliament, before
a decision is reached. Scottish CND is trying to identify what each of the main
parties are saying on this issue. The Liberal Democrats, in a 2002 policy paper,
said that they remain to be convinced about a replacement for Trident.
introduction to the issues
British nuclear weapons policy today is based
on principles established by Michael Quinlan when he was Permanent Secretary at
the MoD in the early 1990s. Yet Quinlan has acknowledged that if we were deciding
today to buy Trident it would be difficult to justify the expenditure. He also
recognises that it will be harder to present the case for nuclear weapons in the
post Cold War world in the absence of a specific threat, such as that perceived
from the Soviet Union.
The need to make a decision before 2008 presents
a major opportunity for the peace movement. The government will face two substantial
problems in reviewing the future of British nuclear weapons. The arguments which
are presented to justify these weapons today do not stand up to close scrutiny.
Secondly, there are practical problems with all of the potential replacement options.
is a contradiction between the rhetoric of US nuclear policy and the forces which
are deployed. The verbal emphasis is on counter-proliferation, responding to the
threat that states like Iran could develop WMD. However the vast majority of US
nuclear weapons are geared up for use against Russia. The bulk of the US nuclear
budget for the remainder of this decade is allocated to programmes which will
keep large numbers of high-yield weapons, designed for use against Russia, in
service until the middle of this century.
The US has also initiated design
programmes to develop lower yield weapons. These are at an early stage, nevertheless
this is a significant development as it would blur the distinction between nuclear
and conventional weapons.
In Britain there have been allusions to the potential
to use Trident for Counter-Proliferation. This is consistent with the policy of
"studied ambiguity" pursued on both sides of the Atlantic. This means
hinting that we could use nuclear weapons in situations like Iraq but not making
a clear specific threat. Meanwhile the force deployed at sea from Faslane is of
a scale and nature that it is clearly designed for use against Russia.
counter-proliferation role for nuclear weapons does not stand up to close inspection.
Nuclear planners recognise that the radiological and political fallout from nuclear
weapons would be so great that a threat to make a nuclear response to a chemical
or biological threat is not credible. Even in the case of a state with a few nuclear
weapons such an attack would be very hard to justify. It is the recognition of
the weakness of their case that has prompted some American planners to resurrect
plans to build lower yield nuclear weapons. However using lower yield weapons
would only reduce, not eliminate, the problems of fallout.
review of nuclear weapons will have to reconsider the basic arguments. They will
have to ask whether Britain needs to have nuclear weapons capable of launching
a devastating attack on Russia and whether the counter-proliferation role on its
own would justify the very substantial expenditure involved.
replacement options available will be determined by the US. Since 1958 the British
nuclear weapons programme has depended on support from the US. This information
was supplied under the conditions of the Mutual Defence Agreement, which means
the US will continue to have a say in all future options. With regard to a follow-on
to Trident, the US replacement will not be available when HMS Vanguard retires,
unless the Royal Navy can stretch the submarine life by several years. Britain
is probably interested in replacing Trident with nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise
missiles. However there are two problems with this option. The main one is that
there is no provision for these missiles, beyond 2015, in US plans. The US has
not deployed nuclear-armed cruise missiles at sea since 1991 and there are signs
that US Navy does not want to keep them. The second problem, for the MOD, is that,
in comparison with Trident, Cruise missiles would be much less effective against
Russia. Britain could collaborate with France on an air-launched missile, but
the US would veto the development of any Anglo-French nuclear warhead to go in
In the absence of nuclear testing, Aldermaston would have to develop
substantial computer facilities before they could develop any new warhead. While
they have a computer modelling programme this is at an early stage and is much
smaller than its US counterpart, which has most of the largest computers in the
world. The history of the Anglo-American nuclear relationship suggests that Aldermaston
will only be given access to US nuclear simulations if they can show that they
are making a substantial commitment to similar work themselves.
option will be very expensive. Stretching the life of Trident would also come
with a large price tag. Major defence projects are often very late and over-budget
and so there would be a large margin of error in any projected costs. While the
main basis for opposing nuclear weapons is on moral grounds, there will also be
scope to highlight the financial burden associated with replacing or sustaining