Britain’s “Minimum Credible Nuclear Deterrent” Begs the Question of Who’s Being Deterred

Britain’s Trident submarine fleet has outlived whatever usefulness it might have had as a deterrent. (Photo: Bodger Brooks / Wikimedia)

Britain’s Trident submarine fleet has outlived whatever usefulness it might have had as a deterrent. (Photo: Bodger Brooks / Wikimedia)

One hundred and fifty seven nations got together in the Austrian capital Vienna from December 8-9 for a conference on ‘the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons’. Among the more notable absentees were more than half of the world’s nuclear weapons states (Russia, France, China, Israel, North Korea).

Kudos then to the U.S. and Britain, as well as nuclear outlaws India and Pakistan, for at least turning up. That said, the statement to the conference of the U.K.’s representative, the improbably named Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque, was far from positive, at least if you believe in nuclear disarmament. 

Emphasizing that the U.K. opposed an outright ban on these weapons of mass destruction as well as ‘a timetable for their elimination’, she drew attention to ‘the stability and security which nuclear weapons can help to ensure’. Underlining the point, the British diplomat added: ‘We will… maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent for as long as it is necessary’.

Let’s put the issue of whether nuclear weapons promote stability and security to one side and focus on the supposed necessity of Trident, Britain’s submarine-based nuclear weapons system (bought from the U.S.). The U.K has four submarines equipped to fire nuclear missiles, and one of these is always at sea. This is known as ‘Continuous At-Sea Deterrence’.

This begs the obvious question of who precisely is being deterred. Trident is a Cold War holdover, originally designed to give pause to the Soviet Union. The ‘Evil Empire’ is long gone and, believe it or not, has been replaced in the eyes of the British government by North Korea.

Last year Prime Minister David Cameron penned an opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph, a right-wing London newspaper, in which he outlined the danger to Britain posed by Pyongyang in the following terms. North Korea is ‘highly unpredictable and aggressive’, he wrote, has conducted nuclear tests and ‘unveiled a long-range ballistic missile which it claims can reach the whole of the United States’. Therefore, ‘it would be foolish to leave Britain defenceless’ in the face of such a threat.

There is a serious problem with this argument: the idea that North Korea might see red and fire off a nuclear warhead at the U.K. is preposterous. Leaving aside the issue of whether Pyongyang even possesses the requisite missile technology to attack Britain, there is no conceivable reason why the loathsome pseudo-communist regime of Kim Jong-un would feel the urge to do so.

Unlike South Korea and the U.S., which have been in an armed standoff with the D.P.R.K. for over half a century, interaction between the U.K. and North Korea is almost non-existent. Indeed, according to website of the British Embassy in Pyongyang, the UK’s ‘flagship project’ in North Korea is nothing more than a training program for English teachers which ‘currently has four Pyongyang-based trainers’.

Moreover, even if North Korea does at some point develop the capacity to fire a nuclear warhead at London and have the desire to do so, the trajectory of such a missile would presumably take it over China and Russia. It’s reasonable to assume that these two geopolitical heavyweights would not take kindly to the prospect of a nuclear weapon flying over their territory. To suggest that Pyongyang is a threat to Britain is therefore wildly unrealistic.

A related and crucial point is that the ‘minimum credible nuclear deterrent’ spoken of by Ambassador le Jeune d’Allegeershecque does not even deter aggression. As other commentators have pointed out, the existence of Britain’s nuclear submarines did not prevent Argentina’s military junta from invading the Falkland Islands, a disputed British territory in the south Atlantic, in 1982. In short, then, what Prime Minister Cameron referred to as an ‘insurance policy’ is nothing of the sort.

The U.K. wants to have its cake and eat it too. In Vienna, Britain’s representative declared that ‘the utmost importance must be given to avoiding any use of nuclear weapons, to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon technology, and to keeping nuclear weapons safe and secure’. Few would argue with these sentiments. Unfortunately, by refusing to relinquish its own eye-poppingly expensive and redundant ‘deterrent’ Britain encourages other states to develop a nuclear capability of their own.

Michael Walker has a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.