Nuclear Rearmament

Tom Stevenson

The decision to expand the UK’s nuclear weapons stockpile by 40 per cent was slipped onto page 76 of the government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in March. The only reason to announce a major strategic decision in such a quiet way is to avoid attention, which is exactly what happened. The UK is now committed to maintaining a larger stock of nuclear warheads than China (according to US estimates) and there has been too little scrutiny of the policy.

One organisation that hasn’t ignored it is the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. CND commissioned Christine Chinkin and Louise Arimatsu of the LSE to provide a legal opinion on whether UK policy is in breach of Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires that signatories take effective measures ‘in good faith’ towards nuclear disarmament. Chinkin and Arimatsu argued that it is. CND plans to report the UK to the UN at the next NPT Review Conference, repeatedly postponed since the start of the pandemic and currently scheduled ‘to be held no later than February 2022’.

Between 2010 and 2019, successive Conservative governments held Britain up as a principled supporter of disarmament, pointing to ‘step by step’ reductions in the UK nuclear stockpile since 1980. In 1998 it was nominally capped at 200 warheads though 225 in fact remained. In 2010 and 2015 the UK said it was committed to reducing the stockpile to 180 warheads. Lifting the cap to 260 this year was a volte-face into open illegality, justified by unspecified ‘technological and doctrinal threats’. The plan is still unclear: what will become of the warheads awaiting decommissioning at the Royal Naval Armaments Depot in Coulport? Is the work of nuclear decommissioners at Burghfield to stop, or will the stockpile be filled over time with new bombs?

The defence intelligentsia is divided over the reason for a larger nuclear stockpile. One argument is that it would allow for the deployment of low-yield ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons, which the UK has not had since the 1990s. The country’s first nuclear weapons, from ‘Blue Danube’ to ‘Red Beard’, were smaller yield atomic bombs designed to be delivered from the air. But since the 1960s the UK’s nuclear programme has been based on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (first Polaris, now Trident). The missiles are leased from the United States. The warheads are made in the UK, but using rebranded American designs. The US kept tactical nuclear weapons in the UK, at RAF Lakenheath, until 2006. There are no known British plans for the procurement of tactical nuclear weapons.

Lawrence Freedman has argued that raising the stockpile cap to 260 would allow for two fully armed Vanguard nuclear submarines to be on patrol at once (each submarine can load sixteen missiles, each of which carries eight warheads, for a total of 256 on two submarines). But the strategic need for this is unclear.

The Integrated Review included the standard rationale for having a ‘nuclear deterrent’ (even though what the UK has is nuclear weapons; deterrence is a conceptual matter): the weapons are to be used in ‘extreme circumstances of self-defence’, and not for threatening non-nuclear states so long as they are not in breach of the NPT. But the Integrated Review also included a striking revision to British policy. Under the new policy the UK ‘reserves the right to review’ its assurances not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states ‘if the future threat of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological capabilities, or emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact, makes it necessary’. This could be read as opening the door to the use of nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack, crossing the line from ambiguity to recklessness.

CND’s argument that the UK is breaking international law is a necessary challenge to the government, but it is not sufficient. There is no reason to confine a critique of British nuclear policy to the limited strictures of international law, themselves often a weapon of the strong. Political critiques from pragmatism, from hypocrisy, from strategy and from principle are needed. The UK has unilaterally committed to a larger nuclear weapons stockpile and a more aggressive nuclear weapons doctrine, and vague references to ‘the prevailing security environment’ were all the cover the government needed.


  • 27 July 2021 at 9:06am
    XopherO says:
    Was this a back door deal of Johnson's with Trump, who perhaps insisted on it to facilitate a trade deal, because this deal anyway will reduce the US trade deficit with the UK? Now the UK is stuck with this pointless extra expense. Any trade negotiations with the US will have to face an overwhelming push to reduce that deficit to the disadvantage of the UK. Can Trident really be used to deliver low yield nuclear weapons precisely to a battlefield? It is surely purely strategic in design, cannot be used 'flexibly' and therefore utterly useless as a deterrent, even if that word makes any sense this context.

  • 27 July 2021 at 11:37am
    David Mackenzie says:
    A good introduction to the issue but missing here is the Nukewatch analysis of the number cap issue (see Also missing is any reference to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons - international law that is emphatically not a "weapon of the strong" and is based absolutely on a principle, that nuclear weapons are utterly horrific in their effects. (see This may also be helpful:

  • 27 July 2021 at 5:31pm
    Rowena Hiscox says:
    All military arguments over the justification for Britain's nuclear stockpile ignore the real reason for keeping it: maintaining Britain's status as a nuclear-armed power, and hence the prestige of our political class as they play at being world statesmen. Both parties are united on that (OK, the Tories have the ball now, but Labour want to play too when their turn comes). If the only way they can find to justify keeping the weapons is to start threatening non-nuclear states, that's what they'll do.

    We can see this from the way that, at least until anti-Semitism took over, the Labour right made renewing Trident their totemic issue for opposing Corbyn. These people don't bat an eyelid at bombing or torture (provided they're happening to someone else). But to even suggest that Britain might be able to survive without the Bomb – that is intolerable. At that they must scratch and kill.

  • 27 July 2021 at 6:07pm
    David Omand says:
    I would urge LRB readers to see Tom Stevenson's piece for what it is, a one-sided polemical account. The UK's retention of a nuclear deterrent is fully consistent with our international legal obligations. And I want to register an important factual error he makes: the UK's nuclear weapons are not and never have been a 'rebranded American design'. The UK produced a new warhead to coincide with the introduction of the Trident system. This warhead was designed as well as manufactured in the UK.
    Professor Sir David Omand, War Studies Department, King's College London

    • 27 July 2021 at 7:11pm
      Thomas Jones (blog editor) says: @ David Omand

    • 27 July 2021 at 8:55pm
      steve kay says: @ David Omand
      I see Tom Stevenson’s piece for what it is, and, Sir David, I see your comment for what it is as well.

    • 28 July 2021 at 8:07am
      Gerard McGorian says: @ David Omand
      And I would urge LRB readers to note that Thomas Jones's referenced article provides both total refutation of David Ormand's erroneous contention and proof positive that there was never a more one-sided polemicist spawned of British bureaucracy.

    • 28 July 2021 at 11:48am
      XopherO says: @ David Omand
      I had never heard of the War Studies Department at Kings, but now I have I am worried about it and its teaching staff.

  • 28 July 2021 at 4:19am
    John Stretch says:
    “Under the new policy the UK ‘reserves the right to review’ its assurances not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states ‘if the future threat of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological capabilities, or emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact, makes it necessary’. This could be read as opening the door to the use of nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack, crossing the line from ambiguity to recklessness.”

    ‘Iraq March 2003’ revisited? At the very time that the US procrastinates over her (more conditional?) return to the UN Security Council endorsed July 2015 JCPOA deal (whereby Iran agreed to a 10 year restriction of its nuclear program activities, in return for a freeing up of international trade access and a partial-lifting of other sanctions).

    Now that Britain has abandoned the EU and is consequently and once-again ‘more captive to US Foreign Policy Agenda’ - this further betrayal of the international Nuclear Disarmament process is a cause for serious alarm.

  • 31 July 2021 at 12:06pm
    RegPresley says:
    Tom Stevenson is right to draw attention to this announcement and to seek a better rationale than has so far been provided.

    He does, however, get a bit muddled over the concept of deterrence. Having made a bit of a debating point over use of the phrase 'nuclear deterrent', he then goes on to imply that nuclear weapons can only be a deterrent to nuclear aggression. But if deterrence is a concept, it follows that it can apply to all sorts of aggression. Thus, if the potential aggression is in the form of some other non-nuclear weapon of mass destruction, there is no practical or philosophical difference if the country threatens a nuclear response to deter that aggression.

    One of the tricky things about deterrence is the difficulty of knowing whether it 'works'. Clearly the nuclear 'deterrent ' doesn't prevent all forms of limited aggression but then its proponents never claimed that it did, or does. It has always been claimed that it deters major world-war-type conflict and part of its claimed effectiveness in this role is the very uncertainty (in the mind of the would-be aggressor) over the consequences of major aggression.

    As to the side-debate over whether UK warheads are really re-badged US ones, the blogpost that Thomas Jones links to looks superficially persuasive but is inconclusive. It would be interesting to see a detailed account from an Aldermaston insider to give the other side of the story, but for obvious reasons that is unlikely.

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