Britain’s nuclear-weapons future: no done deal

Britain’s nuclear-weapons future: no done deal

Paul Rogers – Published 21 June 2016 on

The United Kingdom parliament has taken a historic decision over the future of the country’s nuclear arsenal. On 18 July 2016, it voted by a substantial majority to go ahead with building four Successor-class ballistic-missile submarines to replace the current Vanguard fleet. The cost is estimated at £31 billion for the submarines with a contingency of another £10bn. This combined figure of £41bn, however, is a small part of the overall cost of constructing and maintaining the boats, the warheads, and the many other support requirements.

The warheads are developed and assembled at the Aldermaston/Burghfield complex which has annual running costs of at least £1bn a year. The missile submarines need protection by nuclear-powered (but not nuclear-armed) attack submarines, and are also given support from surface warships. One of the functions of the fleet of nine new Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime-patrol aircraft, also just ordered at a cost of a further £3 million, is to provide further protection.

The total cost estimates now vary, over the lifetime of the new submarines and their missiles, from £140bn-£200bn. This huge commitment to just a single project causes concern not just in among the public but right across the armed services, including even the Royal Navy – although views from within the services rarely, if ever, surface in the public domain.

Even so, the vote was carried and there is now an assumption that it is all a done deal and further debate is pointless. Closer examination, though, suggests otherwise. In particular, three main aspects – technical, organisational and legal – are likely to lead to considerable uncertainty, both during and beyond the lifetime of the current government. Of these, the legal factor is likely to prove especially interesting.

An ‘amber/red’ project

The technical aspect centres mainly on a whole range of developments in the improved detection of submarines as the oceans become transparent thanks to new detection technologies. Much of this is being brought to light by two UK-based NGOs, the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), and the British Pugwash organisation of scientists. Work under way by Pugwash is focusing on analysing the new technologies and their significance, with BASIC highlighting the policy implications of what is now happening (see “Britain’s nuclear deep: a new transparency“, 26 May 2016).

The organisational aspect also impinges on technical issues and concerns the first annual report of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, the body set up to try and bring some sense of order to major government-funded projects. In its first year it has examined 143 major projects of all kinds, 34 of them military. Four of the military projects were given the IPA’s second-worst rating, “amber-red”, indicating serious concerns over the viability of the projects. One of these was the Successsor programme.

This remarkable finding was published just days before the Trident debate in parliament  but seems to have sunk without trace, so to speak, except for coverage in just one specialist military journal.

The Jane’s report makes interesting reading and is worth quoting:

“According to the IPA’s classification system amber/red projects require ‘urgent action [to address] problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible’.”

Thus amber/red raises the question of whether the problems facing a project can even be resolved, and regarding Trident replacement, the report is blunt.

According to Jane’s, the IPA’s view is that the project faces “major risks” and there are “issues apparent in a number of key areas”. The IPA confirms “that the project’s financial and technical risks mean it will not be possible to place a single overarching contract for the delivery of the four new submarines.”

So on these two counts, the Successor programme is in serious trouble and the whole system may turn out to be obsolete before it is even deployed in the early 2030s.

A legal blowback

The third, legal dimension arises in this context. It concerns a single aspect of the parliamentary debate when, according to the Independent, the new prime minister Theresa May was asked by the Scottish National Party’s George Kerevan: “Are you prepared to authorise a nuclear strike that could kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children?” May replied “Yes.”

Kerevan was quite mild in his estimate – if a single Trident submarine fires all twelve missiles, each with three independently targeted warheads and each warhead having eight times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb, the casualties will be in the many millions in an attack taking less than an hour.

Why is this issue so significant, and why was May so open, given that previous leaders have been deeply reluctant to be so straight in answering such questions? Perhaps she was interested in making her mark in the Margaret Thatcher mould, but the consequences are likely to relate to future legal defences mounted by anti-nuclear campaigners arrested and charged as a result of nonviolent direct actions at Faslane, Aldermaston or other nuclear-weapons facilities.

There have been many such examples of this in the past. Indeed, over the last couple of decades, I and others have been asked several times to act as defence expert witnesses, presenting evidence on how particular weapons might be used. In each case the defence argument has been that the actions were justified in order to prevent a much greater crime.

At trials of anti-nuclear campaigners, the most common action of the prosecution has been to argue that such expert witness is irrelevant and the witnesses have not been summoned. On the couple of occasions where I have been called, the prosecuting counsel has been at pains to avoid any discussion of actual UK targeting policy. No doubt this is because it might open up the issue of what Britain’s nuclear force can actually do, to the surprise and even shock of a jury.

In other instances, though, defendants have actually succeeded with this line of argument. One of the best examples is the case of the women who broke into an aircraft factory in Lancashire in 1997 and damaged a Hawk jet which they said was to be exported to Indonesia for use in counterinsurgency operations against the people of East Timor, who were then seeking independence (see “Disarming war: the Hawk Ploughshares story“, 28 January 2016).

After six months in detention, they argued their case at Liverpool Crown Court and were found not guilty by the jury. Their acquittal in a landmark hearing took place exactly 20 years ago this week. The whole story is remarkable, and is covered in the book The Hammer Blow, by one of the women, Andrea Needham, which was published earlier this year.

The Hawk Ploughshares case relied precisely on preventing a greater crime, and it is here that Mrs May’s statement is potentially of great value to anti-nuclear campaigners. George Kerevan’s carefully worded question, using “hundreds of thousands of men, women and children” inevitably means innocent civilians, and the blunt “yes” from the person who is Britain’s “National Command Authority” (to use the US jargon) is unequivocal.

In recent months there has been a series of nonviolent actions at Aldermaston under the aegis of the Action AWE group, and there have been a number of arrests. In the ordinary way, some of those arrested may well seek to use the “greater crime” defence when the cases come to court. They may find themselves in a much stronger position to do so now in the wake of the Trident replacement debate on 18 July and Mrs May’s reply.

Take all three issues together – a potentially obsolete project, already in serious organisational trouble, and one that could face serious legal challenges – and any idea that the Trident replacement debate is over and done with may turn out to be very far from the truth.

About the author: Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University. He is openDemocracy’s international security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers