Trident and UK security

IssueFebruary - March 2016
Feature by Philip Webber

Despite recently uncovered historical evidence of nuclear ‘near misses’ and growing scientific evidence of the devastating global consequences of the use of only a few nuclear weapons, there is still a widespread belief in the value of these weapons among senior policy-makers in the nuclear-armed nations.

In the UK, this manifests itself in a cross-party parliamentary majority in favour of replacing the Trident system. This is largely because of a widespread belief in nuclear deterrence.

Some key arguments are repeatedly put forward by the government – most recently as part of the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) in November 2015:

  • UK weapons are at a ‘minimum’, ‘credible’ level;
  • The nuclear deterrence effect works ‘every day’;
  • They have kept the UK out of conflicts for the last six decades.

Minimum? Credible?

Scientists for Global Responsibility have shown in publications, based on the latest scientific modelling, that the launch of the missiles from a single British Trident submarine would directly cause 10 million civilian casualties and also lead to a decade of climatic cooling and drought severely affecting global food supplies. Use of Trident would be completely disproportionate: both genocidal and suicidal. This level of destructive capability is very far above any reasonable criterion of ‘minimum’.

As nuclear use would have such terrible consequences for the nation that launches nuclear weapons – as well as for the target nation – any threat of nuclear use becomes much less credible and arguably not credible at all.

As it is, the government and the ministry of defence refuse to acknowledge or engage with the latest evidence on the destructiveness of nuclear weapons.

‘Every day’ for 60 years?

It may be the case that nuclear weapons have had some deterrent effect, but it is deeply flawed to argue that this effect is reliable. The absence of nuclear war doesn’t give clear proof of the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence in the same way that habitual smokers cannot claim that smoking is safe because they are still alive and well. One thing we do know is that we have not had a nuclear war despite nuclear weapons.

The evidence from six decades without nuclear war is that we have come perilously close to nuclear destruction on many occasions. This has arisen due to a range of causes: false alarms; military exercises that became too realistic; faulty equipment; human error; and political brinksmanship.

The simplest explanation for the lack of an attack by the Soviet Union on NATO countries is that there was no intention to do so and that the large nuclear deployments on both sides are symptoms of a political failure to demilitarise. Large non-nuclear military forces were more credible as a deterrent to conflict as was the memory of massive Russian casualties during the two previous world wars. Sometimes, diplomacy worked.

To the historical near misses, we now have to add an ongoing and growing risk of cyber-attack or ‘hacking’. A former commander of US strategic nuclear forces urges that the 1,800 Russian and US weapons currently deployed on high alert and kept ready-to-fire should immediately be de-alerted, and physical measures taken to lengthen the time needed to launch a weapon. This is to avoid the risk of hacking leading to an unintended launch, due to the very short decision times, as little as 10 minutes, if an incoming attack is suspected to be in progress.

The UK government asserts that there is no hacking risk, on the basis that systems are ‘air-gapped’: they are not connected to the internet. However, sophisticated methods can bypass the internet via smartphones, memory sticks or apparently innocent industrial components, as shown by the case of the Stuxnet virus infection of Iranian nuclear facilities. Nuclear deterrence, whether effective or not, cannot possibly deter miscalculations or accidents.


The latest SDSR does not consider or even mention a whole set of threats that arise from the continued stockpiling and deployment of nuclear weapons around the world, including in the UK. These include:

  • an intercontinental nuclear conflict – involving the arsenals of the US, Russia or China;
  • a regional nuclear conflict – for example India and Pakistan;
  • the global, disproportionate impact of the sole use of the UK Trident system;
  • the possibility of any of the above scenarios arising due to miscalculation, accident or hacking;
  • the increased dangers of weapons deployed on ‘high alert’ status.

These are major omissions.

Future roles?

The SDSR lists a number of future threats that UK nuclear weapons are intended to deter.

These include the risk of nuclear missile attack by state or non-state ‘actors’.

The UK’s position on the Atlantic coast is far from any possible new state-based nuclear threat. The only realistic locations for such threats are in the Middle or Far East. The historical lesson is that the intention of any such state is to try to create its own regional nuclear ‘deterrent’ – and the cases of Iran and North Korea are relevant here. The recent response to Iran is showing how the international community can use both negotiations and sanctions to prevent the possibility of a new nuclear weapons capability. The case of North Korea shows that the deployment of US nuclear-armed aircraft in the region has arguably led to a more aggressive response from that country rather than the reverse. One thing that is definitely clear is that UK nuclear weapons have been completely irrelevant to both situations.

Turning to non-state actors, there is a very real possibility that terrorists could use highly-radioactive nuclear materials with explosives to spread radiation. The only solution is effective policing and controls of nuclear materials including medical sources. UK nuclear weapons could not possibly be of any use in deterring this threat. In fact, some terrorist groups might see it as a success if they could prompt a nuclear response.

The SDSR cites the value of UK Trident in countering a theoretical future threat from Russia (or possibly China). This argument is simply not credible as the overwhelmingly dominant factor in such Russian calculations would be the hundred-times-larger US nuclear arsenal. British nuclear weapons are irrelevant.

Hypocrisy or hope?

The arguments in favour of nuclear deterrence, used by the UK and other nuclear-armed states, can be used by any country. If nuclear deterrence ‘works’ then, to follow the logic of this proliferation argument, every state should be armed with nuclear weapons.

The UK’s nuclear arsenal is irrelevant in deterrence terms in relation to the very large arsenals of Russia and the US, but its role in disarmament could be very significant. The UK could choose a political path similar to that taken by South Africa, Brazil, Japan and a large number of nations which, while possessing the technological ability to make nuclear weapons, see the benefits of not having such arms. This path would help to improve international security.

The UK could take a leading role in reducing the risk of nuclear war by immediately:

  • taking Trident nuclear submarines off patrol;
  • placing warheads in storage;
  • cancelling the replacement of the Trident submarines; and
  • actively supporting the current multilateral legal process for a global nuclear ban.

There would obviously need to be further steps towards complete disarmament as the process proceeded.

No nation can create security for itself by threatening nuclear devastation ‘elsewhere’.

Topics: Nuclear weapons