60 years of nuclear deterrence

A British deterrent has served us well for sixty years, and can serve us well for another sixty

Britain has retained an continuous-at-sea deterrence for 60 years
Peter Cannon
On 3 October 2012 11:06

It was sixty years ago today, on October 3rd, 1952, that the United Kingdom tested its first nuclear weapon.

A plutonium implosion device was detonated in the hull of HMS Plym off Trimouille Island, one of the Montebello Islands, Western Australia. The UK became the third country to develop nuclear weapons, following the United States and the Soviet Union, and since then, the UK has remained as one of the (now five) recognised nuclear weapon states.

Since 1968, the UK has used submarine-launched ballistic missiles, firstly with the Polaris submarine patrols, and – since 1994 – with Trident. These submarine patrols have been based on the principle of continuous-at-sea deterrence, with the Royal Navy always having at least one submarine on patrol, able to launch its ballistic missiles in the event of a nuclear attack on the UK.

During the Cold War, the UK’s nuclear deterrent, along with the US nuclear arsenal, deterred any Soviet attack against the United States and Western Europe. The fact that there was more than one nuclear command centre for the Soviets to factor into their calculations helped to keep them in check.

But Trident is much more than just a ‘Cold War weapon’. The Cold War may be over, but the threat of nuclear attack has not disappeared. The UK’s nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent against attack.

While the USSR has gone, it is not possible to determine what threats may emerge or which risks might develop in the future. To give up the UK’s nuclear weapons capability now would be to make an assumption that future threats are predictable; they are not. That is why no British government so far has ever thought that this would be a good idea.

It has become fashionable to claim that nuclear deterrence is irrelevant in the 21st century, because of the new and varying threats we face. We often hear that Trident cannot protect us against rogue states and non-state actors which threaten terrorism, biological and chemical weapons, and cyber warfare. But the existence of these threats does nothing to diminish the danger of a future nuclear attack.

Not only that, but the UK’s nuclear weapons do remain directly relevant to these newer threats, as the ultimate deterrent against rogue states which may sponsor terrorism or support attacks on the UK by proxies. Suicide bombers may be irrational, but that is not always the case for those backing them. And whatever progress is made in multilateral disarmament negotiations, these threats from rogue states will remain.

We also need to remember that the UK’s nuclear deterrent contributes towards the collective security of NATO. For the UK to give up its deterrent would therefore weaken NATO’s collective security, leaving this dependent on the US and France, at the very time that the US is turning its attention towards Asia and the Pacific and urging its European allies to take more responsibility for their own defence.

As well as weakening the broader Transatlantic relationship between the US and Europe, such a move would damage the UK’s standing as a leading member of NATO and as an ally of the US.

With our armed forces subject to devastating cuts, we also hear it said that Trident no longer makes financial sense – that we should scrap it and invest the billions we would save into conventional defence.

Aside from the small likelihood that such ‘savings’ would ever really be re-invested in defence, this argument ignores the fact that decommissioning Trident would itself be expensive and cost thousands of defence jobs. More importantly, with running costs at 5 percent of our annual defence budget, Trident actually provides excellent value for money.

Trying to mitigate defence cuts by scrapping our most significant military capability and last line of defence makes no sense. To take such a long-term decision for the sake of short-term financial savings would be to take a reckless gamble with our future.

Realising the unpopularity of the argument for unilateral disarmament, some have taken to advocating that Trident be replaced with some cheaper, scaled-down nuclear weapons system.

The Cabinet Office is currently undertaking a review into ‘alternatives to Trident’ on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Sir Nick Harvey, who was a Lib Dem defence minister until the recent reshuffle, has recently suggested that the UK could move “down the nuclear ladder” by ending continuous-at-sea deterrence and instead “putting [our nuclear deterrent] away in a cupboard and keeping it as a contingency”.

There are serious problems with such an approach. The whole point of continuous-at-sea deterrence is that the UK’s submarines are always ready to respond instantly to an attack, and any potential aggressor knows this. Keeping our nuclear weapons in reserve somewhere in the UK takes away this advantage, and leaves the UK vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike.

It would take days, weeks or months for the UK’s weapons to be deployed, by which time they could have been destroyed by an enemy attack. In addition, a decision to take the weapons ‘out of the cupboard’ in response to a perceived threat would surely be noticed by other countries, and could be seen as an escalation of what would already be a state of international tension, making a pre-emptive strike against the UK even more likely.

Such an approach has little to commend it. And as it would require the design and testing of a whole new nuclear weapons system, it is unlikely to save any money.

Nuclear defence is too important to be done half-heartedly, with slap-dash or ‘cut-price’ solutions. The UK’s nuclear defence has always been grounded on having a credible deterrent based on the best option available. That is continuous-at-sea deterrence.

A British deterrent has served us well for sixty years, and can serve us well for another sixty. And if the UK is to continue doing nuclear deterrence, it must do it properly.

Peter Cannon is a Research Associate at the Henry Jackson Society

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