New Forest East


A Response to 'The UK’s Nuclear Century'

By Julian Lewis

RUSI Journal, vol.159, no.2 – April/May 2014

Five years ago, General Sir Hugh Beach contributed a major essay to the RUSI Journal,1 developing the anti-Trident thesis which he had outlined with Lords Bramall and Ramsbotham in a widely-reported letter in The Times,2 and I was invited to supply a critical response.3 From our opposing perspectives, we have both found much of value in Malcolm Chalmers' comprehensive analysis of the Trident Alternatives Review (published in the December 2013 issue of the RUSI Journal),4 and welcome the opportunity to expand upon its themes.

On 16 July 2013, the Review was unveiled to two separate Westminster audiences by Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, who had taken over responsibility for it when his fellow Liberal Democrat, Sir Nick Harvey, ceased to be armed forces minister. Although the later presentation – to RUSI – was well attended, fewer than a dozen people were present in Parliament's Portcullis House to hear Alexander and MoD officials Ian Forber and Damian Johnson summarise their conclusions. This was unfortunate, as a key fact soon emerged.

Despite the review having been set up at the request of the Liberal Democrats to examine whether the UK’s four-boat Trident force could be replaced by a less-expensive system, there was apparently no question of submitting it to that party’s forthcoming annual conference. Having examined all other systems in detail and ruled them out as viable alternatives to Trident, the review then focused on whether a three-boat force could be militarily adequate or whether four boats would remain indispensable. A two-boat force was examined only in the context of temporarily providing ‘a bridging capability’, during the transition from the first generation of UK Trident submarines to the second.

‘So you did not look at the two-boat option per se?’ I enquired. ‘Correct,’ replied Forber, the lead MoD official attached to the Cabinet Office for the purposes of the review. He confirmed that no discussion had taken place about an operating posture based on only two submarines, except to deal with a temporary transition gap. For his part, Alexander accepted that the review showed that cost savings would be only ‘marginally lower’ for a three-boat than for a four-boat, like-for-like replacement fleet. Referring to the published version of the review, he added that: ‘This document is not going to the party conference, except in the Chief Secretary’s briefcase!’

Political Deadlock and Minority Leverage

Malcolm Chalmers entitles his paper ‘Towards the UK’s Nuclear Century’, in the light of his judgement that ‘the UK nuclear force is likely to survive through to its 100th birthday, at least in the absence of a radical transformation (and denuclearisation) of the international security environment’.5 He suggests that this ‘does not mean that the UK will keep nuclear weapons as long as any other country possesses them’, but ‘the process of wider disarmament would have to go a lot further before the balance of the UK’s political debate could fundamentally shift in a non-nuclear direction’. Coming from the author of Trident: Britain’s Independent Arms Race, published by CND in the Cold War days of 1984, this would seem to be conclusive. Yet, although Chalmers turned away from unilateralism a few years later, other opponents of Trident have yet to give up hope. This is primarily the result of party-political rather than strategic factors.

The question of replacing Trident was supposed to be settled during the current parliament. Prior to publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in October 2010, Conservative defence ministers repeatedly stated that it would specifically exclude the future of the deterrent. The Main Gate contracts were expected to be signed before 2015, thus passing the point of ‘no return’ prior to the next general election. Both main parties supported renewal, as the original Commons vote in favour of Trident, by 409 to 161 on 14 March 2007, had clearly demonstrated – and so renewal seemed certain. That this did not happen was entirely due to the vagaries of the present hung parliament: the party which came third in 2010 negotiated a deal with the party which came first to extend the life of the existing submarines. At an interim additional cost £1.4 billion, though with possible later savings, this would be long enough to postpone the Main Gate decision not only until after a review of alternatives to Trident but also until a year beyond the 2015 election.

What happened in 2010 could easily happen again. If the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power in 2015, both Labour and the Conservatives will vie for their allegiance. The stance of this traditionally anti-nuclear party therefore deserves closer scrutiny. In particular, it would be a mistake to think that Liberal Democrat policy is in any way based on the Trident Alternatives Review. Despite ‘its unusual provenance as an independent [Cabinet Office] study commissioned at the request of Liberal Democrat ministers’, as Chalmers rightly describes it, the review has played absolutely no part in the formation of the party's current position. This vital point is one which he acknowledges only in a footnote, commenting that ‘Liberal Democrat Party official policy, approved by its 2013 conference, still remains more radical than that of its leaders’. In reality, it was the party leadership which recommended the relevant paper for adoption by the conference, as an alternative to overt unilateralism.

As Alexander had predicted, the conclusions of the Trident Alternatives Review – with its careful consideration of a three-boat versus a four-boat force – were never on the conference agenda. On 17 September, by 322 votes to 228, the conference rejected an amendment demanding complete British nuclear unilateralism, backing instead the party’s Policy Paper no.112 entitled ‘Defending the Future’. Drawn up by a 'Working Group on Defence', barely five pages of this document deal with the UK strategic deterrent.6 What follows is a summary and assessment of these pages, as they now constitute official party policy on Trident.

Liberal Democrat 'Contingency Posturing'

According to ‘Defending the Future’, the party remains ‘wholly unconvinced’ that the UK need renew Trident on a scale equivalent to the Cold War fleet, or that it can afford to do so. It notes that continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD) was maintained after the fall of communism, but asks rhetorically ‘with what benefit?’ It observes that the UK has ‘not faced a direct nuclear or other major military threat’ for nearly two decades and baldly asserts that ‘it seems inconceivable that the UK will ever use a nuclear weapon’. Nevertheless, simply deciding to disarm now ‘would not yield financial savings in the next Parliament nor would it give us leverage in global nuclear disarmament talks’. Therefore, rather than immediate unilateralism, it recommends seizing ‘the opportunity to take significant steps down the nuclear ladder by changing our posture and ending CASD’.

Instead of continuous patrolling ‘so we could strike back instantly’, the paper promotes a ‘Contingency Posture’ short of 'stepping off the nuclear ladder completely'. CASD would be replaced by regular exercising of the remaining submarines, the design of which should be amended ‘to enable alternative or dual use for conventional purposes’. In this regard, 'Having three rather than four submarines would save roughly £4 billion; two would produce further savings.' Most crucially, under this new Liberal Democrat policy, the British government should 'issue a declaratory policy of going to sea only with unarmed missiles’ and should store ‘a reduced stockpile of warheads at RNAD Coulport for redeployment within a specified timeframe’. The deterrent force would ‘surge to more constant armed patrols only during limited periods when a deteriorating security picture, in which the survival of the state is conceivably at stake, demands this’.

The prospect of sending deterrent submarines to sea unarmed, whilst leaving all of the country’s nuclear warheads vulnerable in a single location ashore until a crisis arises, has been much derided – and for very good reason. It is difficult to conceive of a posture more likely than this to invite a pre-emptive, bolt-from-the-blue, disarming first strike by any future, nuclear-armed, potential enemy. The idea of waiting for a crisis to arise ‘in which the survival of the state is conceivably at stake’ before recalling the available submarines to Scotland for laborious arming in full view of the country’s adversaries is utterly reckless. The notion of sending recently armed submarines to sea – even if one managed to bring warheads on board unmolested in such dangerous circumstances – would also hugely increase tension in the middle of a crisis.

Running through 'Defending the Future' is a consistent theme that dismantling the British deterrent force is the party's real objective, and that helping to 'define the nuclear ladder and pointing the way down' is merely aimed at coaxing the main political parties also to descend, rather than 'turning our backs and arguing a non-nuclear case from the sidelines'. Given the fact that support for nuclear unilateralism remains stubbornly at about one-quarter of the UK population, the two main parties are unlikely to be attracted to it. As the policy paper concedes, its 'Contingency Posture' would 'de-couple nuclear weapons from the day-to-day calculus of national security and show [that] the UK can live without nuclear weapons continuously at sea, as a precursor to living without nuclear weapons at all'. It is, in short, the slow boat to unilateralism.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that these proposals were not put to the Liberal Democrat conference as an ‘alternative’ to what the leadership wanted. On the contrary, it was precisely this document which present and former ministers, like Danny Alexander and Sir Nick Harvey, were recommending for endorsement by the conference. What was reported in much of the media as a victory for the leadership was actually the adoption of proposals so extreme as to have been excluded from the Trident Alternatives Review which those same Ministers had initiated and supervised. Indeed, the day after that review was published, The Times remarked in an editorial that: ‘Replacing Trident is prudent given the extreme long-term uncertainties about the international order’,7 whilst the Financial Times focused on the ‘almost negligible’ savings which would result from undermining CASD by reducing a four-boat fleet to three. Emphasising that it ‘might have had more respect for the Lib Dems on the future of Trident if they had publicly espoused the whole-hearted unilateralism to which many of their grass-roots supporters are committed’, the Financial Times concluded that ‘the case for building a like-for-like replacement is now settled’.8 If this is the verdict on the outcome of the review, it should be totally beyond doubt where the much more extreme proposals adopted as official Liberal Democrat policy are concerned.

Nor are the two main parties likely to find it enticing to 'step down the nuclear ladder', given that the UK already has the minimum nuclear force necessary to guarantee CASD. The prime minister has stated that he is 'in favour of a full replacement for Trident, a continuous at-sea deterrent and making sure that we keep our guard up. That is Conservative policy; it will remain Conservative policy as long as I am the leader of this party'.9 Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has described CASD as remaining 'the backbone of our deterrence posture’ and has dismissed Liberal Democrat plans to abandon it as ‘reckless’.10 For Labour, Shadow Armed Forces Minister Kevan Jones has called for Main Gate contracts for the successor submarines to be signed during the lifetime of this parliament,11 and Shadow Defence Secretary Vernon Coaker has firmly committed the Opposition to 'the minimum credible independent continuous at-sea deterrent'.12

Only if the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power after another indecisive general election result in 2015 is the successor to Trident at risk of being blocked: hence the attention paid in this paper to recording the party’s actual policy rather than to the findings of the Trident Alternatives Review, which the party has chosen to ignore.

Five Strategic Propositions

My own views on the continuing strategic necessity of British retention of an independently controlled nuclear deterrent have been set out in detail in two previous RUSI Journal articles. The first, in April 2006, was a theoretical statement of the case in the post-Cold War world, particularly emphasising that the certainty of retaliation is as necessary for stable deterrence as is its magnitude.13 The second, in February 2009,14 was a mixture of military and political arguments in response to criticisms of Trident by Lords Bramall and Ramsbotham, and by General Beach especially. Its five central strategic propositions merit restating:

First, future military threats and conflicts will be no more predictable than those which engulfed us throughout the twentieth century. This is the overriding justification for preserving armed forces in peacetime as a national insurance policy. No-one knows which enemies might confront us during the next thirty to fifty years, but it is highly probable that at least some of them will be armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Secondly, it is not the weapons themselves which we have to fear, but the nature of the regimes which possess them. Whereas democracies are generally reluctant to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear dictatorships (though they did against Japan in 1945), the reverse is not true. Think, for example, of a non-nuclear Britain in 1982 facing an Argentina in possession of a few tactical nuclear bombs and the means of delivering them.

Thirdly, the UK has traditionally played a more important and decisive role in preserving freedom than other medium-sized states have been able or willing to do. Democratic countries without nuclear weapons have little choice but to declare themselves neutral and hope for the best, or to rely upon the nuclear umbrella of powerful allies. The UK is a nuclear power already and is also much harder to defeat by conventional means because of our physical separation from the continent.

Fourthly, our prominence as the principal ally of the United States, our strategic geographical position, and the fact that we are obviously the junior partner might tempt an aggressor to risk attacking us separately. Given the difficulty of overrunning the United Kingdom with conventional forces, in contrast to our more vulnerable allies, an aggressor could be tempted to use one or more weapons of mass destruction against us, on the assumption that the United States would not reply on our behalf. Even if that assumption were false, the attacker would find out his mistake when, and only when, it was too late for all concerned. An independently controlled British nuclear deterrent massively reduces the prospect of such a fatal miscalculation.

Fifthly, no quantity of conventional forces can compensate for the military disadvantage which faces a non-nuclear country in a war against a nuclear-armed enemy. The atomic bombing of Japan is especially instructive – not only because the emperor was forced to surrender, but also in terms of the reverse scenario: imagine if Japan had developed atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 and the Allies had not. An invasion to end the war would have been out of the question.

These five arguments continue to cater for the case against Trident made by General Beach in his latest article for the RUSI Journal, the draft of which he has once again kindly shared with me. His point about Trident costs compared to those of conventional forces is covered by proposition five. The views of individual American diplomats that they would rather we add incrementally to overall NATO conventional strength than keep our own independent deterrent, fall foul of a number of my arguments, especially proposition four. The examples of dictatorships defying democracies by waging aggression below the nuclear threshold are covered by proposition two, and the assertion that 'the government of a non-nuclear Britain, in the teeth of a nuclear threat would ... keep calm and carry on', though comforting to imagine, would be likely to succumb to the third proposition – which also deals with Beach’s preference that, as many other countries have opted to forgo a nuclear arsenal, the UK should follow suit.

Areas of Agreement

Turning to Malcolm Chalmers’ analysis, I find plenty to endorse. He is right that the debate is less fraught than at the height of Cold War East-West rivalry. He sensibly accepts that current threats could change ‘if hostile nuclear powers were to emerge in the Middle East or if there were to be a return to nuclear confrontation with Russia or China’. His quoted poll figures broadly correspond to the results of numerous surveys throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s: that only a quarter of the UK population ‘would like to give up nuclear weapons completely’. He might regard public support for an ‘equally powerful’ successor as ‘lukewarm’ at present, but – if past campaigns on new nuclear systems are any guide – this would quickly harden once the debate intensified.

It is also indisputable that, while the successor submarines are being manufactured, the cost of the UK’s nuclear force could rise to 10–12 per cent of the defence budget in the 2020s – or even more if that budget is cut by a further 10 per cent in the coming years. This cost inflexibility is an unavoidable but justifiable consequence of our policy of minimum strategic deterrence based on CASD. Given that by the late 2030s Trident will consume just 5–6 per cent of the annual defence budget, this seems an eminently affordable premium to pay for the country’s ultimate insurance policy.

Referring to possible conflicts with conventionally superior major powers, and possible advances in defensive technology available even to smaller ones, Chalmers remarks that ‘Such calculations reinforce the current judgement that, if the UK is to have a nuclear force at all, it needs to have one with independent deterrent value against even the most powerful (and geographically large) potential adversary states in the world’. And, when quoting the Trident Alternatives Review’s finding that ‘a three-boat fleet would risk multiple unplanned breaks in continuous covert patrolling’, he robustly concludes that this would be incompatible with CASD – the abandonment of which ‘could not be presented simply as a marginal adjustment of force posture. It would be viewed as ... signalling a substantial diminution in the priority that the UK gives to nuclear deterrence’.

His observations on the financial consequences of ending CASD are striking: a fleet of three boats with intermittent ability to provide unbroken patrolling ‘might end up costing more money. The greater the likely requirement to cycle in and out of a continuous patrol posture, therefore, the less cost-effective it is likely to be to cut the total force to three. For those who believe that the UK deterrent is in “use” all the time, and worry about the signal that a non-continuous posture could send to potentially hostile powers, the argument for maintaining CASD remains strong.’ Although the alternative of a non-continuous posture could apparently be upgraded to CASD ‘within a matter of weeks’, the added degree of risk incurred would yield a saving of just £4 billion over the entire lifetime of the successor fleet ‘if it were to shift from a four-boat to a three-boat option’ – just 5 per cent of the lifetime cost of the entire system. In short, Chalmers accepts that the case for a reduction to three boats cannot be made on financial grounds alone but ‘needs to be bolstered by strong political arguments’.

This is where his article becomes more speculative. He asserts, on the basis of no particular evidence, that: ‘the odds are still in favour of another half-century in which the UK government never has to seriously contemplate the use of its nuclear weapons in a crisis ... Recent history, moreover, suggests that the re-emergence of a Cold War-style nuclear threat is unlikely.’ Cited in support is a euphoric prediction by Bruno Tertrais that ‘massive organised conflict ... may very well have disappeared by the end of the century’. Yet there is a very long history of conflicts arising entirely unexpectedly. Indeed, Chalmers concedes ‘the possibility of a slide towards a world in which more dangerous nuclear threats to the UK could emerge’. He is even open to suggestions that the Anglo-American alliance cannot be taken entirely for granted, and that the resurrection of ‘nationalist demons’ on the continent of Europe cannot be entirely ruled out. Such alarmist scenarios might seem implausible when looked at now, he states, but UK policy-makers cannot be blamed for feeling ‘uncomfortable with the possibility that their country could be left facing a future nuclear threat with no nuclear force of its own’.

Two of his (rather brief) conclusions do not fully do justice to the depth of his analysis. First, the counterfactual assertion that, today, the UK would not become a nuclear-armed state were it not one already does little to advance the argument. Had the UK never been a nuclear power, the strategic context in which it has operated for the past half-century would have been very different and its outlook as an international actor would have been correspondingly diminished. Secondly, whilst it is true that no single weapons system can guarantee security against every type of threat, proponents of the deterrent have never regarded it as a panacea. Of course the UK remains vulnerable to threats below the nuclear threshold if it keeps its strategic deterrent; but it can expect infinitely greater threats above the nuclear threshold if it does not.

Nevertheless, Chalmers’ overall conclusion on the basis of detailed study of the Trident Alternatives Review is probably sound – we are not about to witness the unilateral abandonment of the UK deterrent. This ought to be correct on strategic grounds and it ought to be correct in the light of unwavering public endorsement. Only a perverse combination of party politics and hung parliaments may yet frustrate the findings of Chalmers’ valuable study of an official review which was promptly discarded by the politicians who commissioned it.

Julian Lewis MP is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College London, and was the Conservative defence spokesman on the nuclear deterrent between 2002 and 2010.


1 Hugh Beach, 'Trident: White Elephant or Black Hole', RUSI Journal (Vol.154, No. 1, February/March 2009), pp.36–43.

2 Letter to The Times, 'UK Does Not Need a Nuclear Deterrent', 16 January 2009.

3 Julian Lewis, 'Soldiers against the Bomb?', RUSI Journal (Vol.154, No.1, February/March 2009), pp.44–48.

4 Malcolm Chalmers, 'Towards the UK's Nuclear Century', RUSI Journal (Vol. 158, No. 6, December 2013), pp.18–28.

5 Ibid.

6 Liberal Democrats, 'Defending the Future: UK Defence in the 21st Century', Policy Paper No. 112 for the Autumn Conference 2013, pp.19–23.

7 Editorial in The Times, 'Britain's Deterrent', 17 July 2013.

9 Hansard, HC Debates, 9 February 2011, col. 296.

10 Hansard, HC Debates, 31 October 2011, col. 407W; Benedict Brogan, ‘No Downgrades for Trident, Says Hammond’, Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2013.

11 Hansard, HC Debates, 17 June 2013, col. 617.

12 Hansard, HC Debates, 3 February 2014, col. 17.

13 Julian Lewis, 'Nuclear Disarmament versus Peace in the 21st Century', RUSI Journal (Vol. 151, No. 2, April/May 2006), pp.50–54. See also letter to the Daily Telegraph, 'A Real Deterrent', 10 February 2014.