Nukes and the UK's Role on the Global Stage

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There was much to snicker at in US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's recent comments regarding the UK, Trident, and the Special Relationship™, but most perplexing was the claim that Trident helps the UK "play [an] outsized role on the global stage".

It is difficult to defend this claim either theoretically or with reference to empirical (i.e. historical) evidence. Theoretically Trident functions as a deterrent against attack, with particular but not exclusive emphasis on deterring a nuclear attack that threatens the survival of the nation. By providing a guaranteed "second strike" capability, Trident ensures that no hostile power would undertake to annihilate or otherwise subjugate fair Albion, lest they be consumed by the fires of retribution. This survival function is a strictly negative one, with almost* no positive or enabling role. Akin to the distinction between negative and positive liberty, Trident protects against but provides little power to -- and it is the latter that is relevant when it comes to "play[ing] an outsized role on the global stage".

Nor does history look kindly upon the view that nuclear weapons help the UK play an outsized role on the global stage. Did Britain's nuclear weapons deter the Soviet Union? Did they prevent the humiliation of the Suez Canal crisis? Did they deter Argentina from invading the Falklands or were they useful in recovering them? Did they deter Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait or play a role in his 1991 or 2003 defeats? Did they allow the UK to retain Hong Kong? Have they been useful in Afghanistan, Libya, or the broader War on Terror? Indeed, is there any conceivable scenario in which Trident would play an active role either in allowing Britain to exercise power in the world, or serve itself as the positive manifestation of that power?

Against both the theoretical and historical failure of Britain's nuclear weapons in helping it to play an outsized role on the global stage are the very real opportunity costs of those weapons and their supporting platforms. The many billions of pounds invested in nuclear weapons could have been (and could be) used to support more robust conventional forces that are useful forms of power to project abroad, from the Falkands to Iraq to Afghanistan. Far from allowing the UK to play an outsized role on the global stage, the expensive nuclear weapons complex actively inhibits the power that the UK is capable of exercising around the globe. The foregoing is not to render a verdict on the question of whether the UK should or should not retain nuclear weapons, but responds to a specific rationale claimed for them -- that they allow Britain to play an outsized role on the global stage. They do not.

* There are significant caveats here with reference to the claimed or potential direct and indirect coercive powers of nuclear weapons, however these make for lengthy digressions that ultimately do not affect the conclusion. The UK's nuclear deterrent has played no coercive role historically, and it is difficult to envision circumstances under which it would.

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Well to answer one of your questions - surely it WAS a deterrent for the Soviet Union - just as Soviet nukes were for the west?
That was the whole argument of Mutually Assured Destruction.

I would also wager that after the Black Buck raids and the sinking of the Belgrano, the Argentinian Junta were suddenly very mindful of the UK's nuclear capability - especially as it was Mrs T's finger hovering over the button.

And today? Well I bet fat Kim in North Korea knows exactly who has, and doesn't have such a capability

I don't think anyone has ever suggested they have a positive usefulness: it's always been a case of the big stick behind the soft talking. I suppose the question back would be - would you feel safer NOT having a nuclear capability?

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Did Britain's nuclear weapons deter the Soviet Union?

How would we ever know? The only entity that could possibly answer that is the Soviet Union and those that governed it. And would you trust them to give you an honest answer?

Did Britain's nuclear weapons.....prevent the humiliation of the Suez Canal crisis? Did they deter Argentina from invading the Falklands? Did they deter Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait or play a role in his 1991 or 2003 defeats? Did they allow the UK to retain Hong Kong? Have they been useful in Afghanistan, Libya, or the broader War on Terror?

Are you seriously asking those questions? Because by asking those questions you demonstrate that you don't have the slightest concept of how the United Kingdom uses nuclear weapons as a deterrent, how the unilateral use of nuclear weapons would be viewed by the international community or how limited the use of nuclear weapons is in a tactical sense to combat terrorism.

Indeed, is there any conceivable scenario in which Trident would play an active role either in allowing Britain to exercise power in the world, or serve itself as the positive manifestation of that power?

Again, that depends on whether you think that Trident has acted as a deterrent against the expansion of the former Soviet Union.
Profile picture for user Rii

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Well to answer one of your questions - surely it WAS a deterrent for the Soviet Union - just as Soviet nukes were for the west?
That was the whole argument of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The difficulty with this argument is that the United States was already providing a comprehensive deterrent against potential Soviet aggression in the form of both conventional and nuclear forces, to which the UK's nukes constituted a trifling addition.

Indeed, in the real world we know that the British nuclear program, far from being a manifestation of the Special Relationship™ as claimed by Carter, was in fact driven by the desire to maintain Britain's independence from the United States and its security guarantees. This may have been (and may be) an entirely sensible objective, but it is not one that allows or helps the UK to "play an outsize role on the global stage" -- it merely ensures that the UK remains on the stage and able to function as an independent actor.

I would also wager that after the Black Buck raids and the sinking of the Belgrano, the Argentinian Junta were suddenly very mindful of the UK's nuclear capability - especially as it was Mrs T's finger hovering over the button.

Surely the risk of nuclear attack for Argentina was not when they were already reeling from the imposition of British power (non-nuclear, you may note) but rather in the event that they succeeded in repelling the British counter-attack and/or sinking much of the task force? In this context the function of nuclear weapons (directed at, one assumes, Beunos Aires, or the Falklands themselves, or both) would be to deny Argentina victory and salvage British pride.

And today? Well I bet fat Kim in North Korea knows exactly who has, and doesn't have such a capability

I'm sure he does, but not for the reasons you imagine. Undoubtedly the North Korean leadership has observed that neither the United States nor anyone else has ever threatened the survival of a nuclear-armed nation. Indeed, this points to the real utility of nuclear weapons as being most useful for weak states that, in the presence of a credible threat, are unable to guarantee their security by conventional means: North Korea, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, perhaps India. Paradoxically, it is the Big Five nuclear powers -- those with the most comprehensive nuclear arsenals -- that are today least in need of nuclear weapons.

I suppose the question back would be - would you feel safer NOT having a nuclear capability?

Well, I live in a country that lacks a nuclear capability, and I'm pretty comfortable with that. Certainly if Australia were to choose to develop nuclear weapons, I don't believe I would either feel safer or be safer as a result.

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Hmmmm... I'm not sure that any nuclear attack - however small could be considered "trifling"!
And take a look at the attached image from a cold-war Soviet bunker. There's some familiar-looking aircraft on there that seem to suggest the Soviets didn't consider the risk of a UK attack entirely "trifling"

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I'm confused by your argument: You say Britain only had nuclear weapons to "keep us a player on the global stage" - but deny that they offer the UK "an outsized role on the global stage". What's the difference?

You also talk about nuclear weapons being useful for weaker states who can't guarantee security by conventional means".. well wouldn't that also apply to the UK or France just as much as to North Korea, or indeed any smaller nuclear-armed state potentially facing the conventional forces of America, Russia or China? Once again - it's the whole argument of deterrence.

As you say yourself,"no one has ever threatened the survival of a nuclear-armed nation" So doesn't that alone justify having them?!

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Hmmmm... I'm not sure that any nuclear attack - however small could be considered "trifling"!
And take a look at the attached image from a cold-war Soviet bunker. There's some familiar-looking aircraft on there that seem to suggest the Soviets didn't consider the risk of a UK attack entirely "trifling"

If the Soviets were deterred by the American nuclear arsenal (and the conventional arsenals of all the NATO powers) then the British nuclear arsenal was superfluous to that purpose. If the Soviets were not deterred by the American nuclear arsenal (and the conventional arsenals of all the NATO powers) alone, then how likely is it that the addition of the relatively small British nuclear arsenal to that sum made the difference?

I'm confused by your argument: You say Britain only had nuclear weapons to "keep us a player on the global stage" - but deny that they offer the UK "an outsized role on the global stage". What's the difference?

Apologies for the confusion -- I meant that Britain's nuclear weapons, through their deterrent function, all but ensure that it will continue to exist as a sovereign territorial entity with its attendant population, i.e. the UK remains on the stage. However, those nuclear weapons do not allow or help the UK to play any role on the stage, that is to exert influence upon other entities/actors and shape the board according to its interests.

You also talk about nuclear weapons being useful for weaker states who can't guarantee security by conventional means".. well wouldn't that also apply to the UK or France just as much as to North Korea, or indeed any smaller nuclear-armed state potentially facing the conventional forces of America, Russia or China? Once again - it's the whole argument of deterrence.

It could apply to the UK or France. The question is whether a credible threat exists that would justify the investment in nuclear weapons and render acceptable their opportunity cost in the form of diminished conventional forces and/or higher taxation and/or reduced public services. I think you could make the case that, for the UK today, there is no such credible threat.

As you say yourself,"no one has ever threatened the survival of a nuclear-armed nation" So doesn't that alone justify having them?!

If the UK did not already possess nuclear weapons and their associated delivery platforms and have all the associated expertise, I think it would be foolish to undertake to develop such at this point in time. Maintaining and updating an existing nuclear capability obviously requires far fewer resources and therefore the threat level necessary to justify doing so is much lower. I don't actually have a strong opinion as to whether the UK (or anyone else) should or should not retain a nuclear capability. I do think that we should be honest about the rationale for and utility of that capability and its limitations and costs.

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I think you could make the case that, for the UK today, there is no such credible threat.

And, of course, you can guarantee that there will be no credible threat at any time in the future!

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Re the Soviets and the deterrence effect.
There was a chap on Newsnight a couple of weeks back who either was or had been something senior in the Polish administration. He clearly stated that Soviet war plans available to the Poles post the collapse of the Soviet Union contained scenarios whereby a number of "western" states were targeted with tactical nuclear weapons by the Soviets.
These included West Germany, Denmark, Norway and I believe possibly Sweden.
Significantly the only "western" European states not targeted with tactical nucs were France and Great Britain. Both of whom had and continue to have a independent nuclear capability.
Make of that what you will.

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All of which suggests that either the Soviets did not believe the NATO credo that an attack on one member is an attack on all and will be retaliated or the report is inaccurate and/or uncorroborated.

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Having been involved in it all in my past, yes they are and still remain a credible deterrent, recent history has proved that, the U.K and the USA agreed to defend the Ukraine if they got rid of their nuclear weapons which they did and to our lasting shame we both reneged on that agreement, do you think the Russians would ever have moved on the Crimea if the Ukraine still had their nuclear deterrent, I think not.

The one item that with hindsight I feel was never a goer, and that was the belief that we could use small tactical nukes to stop a Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany, the idea you could let the genie out of the bottle and take out a couple of square miles of attacking forces to blunt the attacks to me no longer seems credible, because once you start dropping buckets of instant sunshine on the belief the opposition will simply see them as tactical weapons and not respond in kind escalating the size and response is a fallacy. Once that cork is popped, there is no putting it back in the bottle. Though as a deterrent to blunt any attempted assault, yes it worked.

Personally I think Chernobyl showed the world the error of the thinking, fall out reached Britain and France showing that even a minor spillage could have disastrous results and a tactical nuke fest would render Europe uninhabitable.

I still find it amazing that in this day and age grown men can bicker to the point they could kill the whole of life on this little rock we all live on, no one wins and Einsteins case that he didn't know what weapon the Third World War would be fought with, but he knows what the fourth would be, sticks and stones..... One doubts that there would be anyone left to throw rocks after a full scale nuclear war.

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While I agree with a lot of this, the move on the Crimea could easily have happened if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons. As a deterrent, how would they have worked? Nuke the Crimea.. or Moscow? What would that achieve?

Putin sent anonymous Russian units to the Crimea, to take over local infrastructure and government. In the first scenario you'd kill them - and everybody else there as well. In the second they'd just become murderous. We didn't nuke either the Falklands or Buenos Aires in 82, for the same obvious-when-you-think-it-through reasons.

Putin wouldn't have given a toss about the Ukranian nuclear arsenal in the context his strategy regarding the Crimea, as Galtieri didn't about ours.

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Okay, let's review what we've learned today :)....nukes: ended WWII, possibly prevented WWIII ( or at least brought peace to Europe...when was the last time Europe went 50+ years without a major conflict?), didn't prevent the Suez issue, Falklands invasion, giving back Hong Kong, The "Troubles", etc. etc.

But let's return to the main question...if the UK scraps her SLBMs AND the saved money is reinvested in the UK military and not siphoned off on other programs...wouldn't that be a good thing?

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wouldn't that be a good thing?

Well the figures are notoriously flexible, but I think the UK Government currently says the total cost of replacing Trident is up to £25billion total. Critics say it's anything up to £100billion total over a 40 year lifespan.

Annual US military budget around $600billion.... China around $200billion annually.

So even if it cost £200billion over 40 years, I can't see that scrapping Trident buys enough extra conventional capability to make much of a difference.

Especially as all that expensive new hardware would be easily wiped out by a couple of well-aimed Pakistani nukes :).

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You are both talking about an attack on countries that didn't posses a nuclear capability to respond and where you were far superior in modern weaponry than the opposition. its a totally different kettle of fish where you are being invaded and have that response available, why do you think the world is worried about North Korea, it's because it is in the control of a nutter, that's why.

Similarly why do you think the likes of the US etc were sanctioning Iran over their nuclear programme, it was because once they have them you are stifled from any future "conflict" against them or in the region for fear they will use them, same with Iraq, and also the reason Israel took out the nuclear power station that was being built in Iraq. it only takes one religious nutter to start popping them off and the whole world is gone.

And as for the funding being spent to bolster the conventional forces, you are living in a pipe dream if you think that would ever happen, hell, they don't even spend the revenue from road tax on the roads, what chance has the military got!

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[QUOTE=TonyT;2294820

And as for the funding being spent to bolster the conventional forces, you are living in a pipe dream if you think that would ever happen, hell, they don't even spend the revenue from road tax on the roads, what chance has the military got![/QUOTE]

Exactly! Any Chancellor with that windfall would easily find ways of syphoning it off into the general spending pot. As for road tax not being used on the roads, or NIC being used for health and social security, the days of hypothecated taxation are long gone...

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I'll add to my previous comment and respond to Beermat.

Putin played a gamble, he gambled that the US and UK with its military tied up in the exit from the Afghanistan debacle and with the on going troubles in the Iraq and the Mediterranean area, along with a desire of the peoples of both countries against being involved with troops on the ground in any future conflict, that the west would not put troops on the ground and honour the agreements we had in place with the Ukraine.
He gambled correctly and we are living with the results. If the Ukraine had retained its nuclear capability, we wouldn't be having this conversation as Putin would have not risked an all out conflict.

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The unanswered question is whether he would even have considered the gamble had the EU, in its ever widening territorial ambitions, refrained from engaging with Ukraine so closely, culminating in the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Which was always bound to be provocative.

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You have to remember though the Ukraine is a Sovereign state and as such it should be free to ally itself with whatever trade partnership it wishes too. It is not for Russia to tell another Sovereign state who they can and cannot trade with.

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Of course that is quite true. But "spheres of interest" have always existed and the Russians perceived the EU's enthusiastic opportunism provocative. I am not defending one side or the other, merely making the observation. Once the Association was agreed in 2012 it was inevitable that there would be a Russian response. The Russians are not naive enough to accept the Association as a trade pact only. This extract illustrates just how much more it is:

What is in the Association Agreement?

The Association Agreement is a pioneering document: it is the first agreement based on political association between the EU and any of the Eastern Partnership countries, and is unprecedented in its breadth (number of areas covered) and depth (detail of commitments and timelines).
The Agreement focuses on support to core reforms, economic recovery and growth, and governance and sector cooperation in areas such as energy, transport and environment protection, industrial cooperation, social development and protection, equal rights, consumer protection, education, youth, and cultural cooperation.
The Agreement also puts a strong emphasis on values and principles: democracy and the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, good governance, a market economy and sustainable development.
There will be enhanced cooperation in foreign and security policy and energy.
It includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which goes further than classic free trade areas, as it will both open up markets but also address competitiveness issues and the steps needed to meet EU standards and trade on EU markets.
The Agreement will also highlight Justice, Freedom & Security issues which also include provisions on mobility.

It is in fact the EU's initial shot at integrating an arguably non-european state into its eager and all embracing maw!!

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CH, that's interesting stuff - yes, I can see that annoying Vladimir.

On the previous, I'm struggling with the "Nukes are only an effective deterrent against countries that can nuke you back" point. I am presuming that I have misunderstood.. not the first time.

If the argument is they guard against a first strike by a nutter, the problem is we're talking about a nutter..

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Its the MAD theory in that countries would never enter a war using nuclear weapons against another nuclear power because it would ensure their own destruction hence MAD ( mutual assured destruction ) and when you are caught on the back foot in a conventional war, your conventional forces are about to be destroyed and your country overrun, the country losing may opt to use nuclear weapons as a last resort, so you are naturally cautious about attacking that country in any form in the first place as you know it may rapidly escalate out of control and result in the destruction of both countries.
Remember in defeat those with their fingers on the button are often those that get topped, so they have nothing to lose.
During my service in the RAF we trained to operate in a Nuclear Biological and Chemical war and reflecting on it, I think the best place to have been would have been at ground zero, cigar in one hand, beer in the other and a damned attractive woman underneath me.. With 3 minutes to go I think I'd finish the beer, but maybe not the rest ;)

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