Defence Secretary Michael Fallon during a visit to Vanguard-class submarine HMS Vigilant, one of the UK's four nuclear warhead-carrying submarines. Danny Lawson/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Donald Trump has said that there is a risk of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea and using such terminology implies a potential nuclear dimension. Britain's foreign secretary Boris Johnson has said that the United Kingdom would support the United States in further military action against the Assad regime in Syria. This raises some worrying questions early in the UK's general-election campaign, especially if it is put in the context of the country's long-term commitment to the use of nuclear weapons.
When Britain's new prime minister Theresa May announced the next stage of the Trident replacement programme in July 2016 she was asked directly whether she would ever “press the button” and fire these, the nuclear missiles in the United Kingdom's arsenal. She said yes, unreservedly, ensuring that the UK would remain a fully functioning member of the nuclear club: that tiny group of nine states compared with the 186 states that do not possess nuclear weapons (see "A nuclear world: eight-and-a half rogue states", 13 January 2017).
The opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was asked the same question during the current general-election campaign, and repeated his oft-expressed refusal to do so. For this he was roundly condemned by leading Conservatives and their supporters in the press. The defence secretary Michael Fallon termed Corbyn an out-and-out security threat, while confirming that Britain’s retains a nuclear "first-use" strategy. To put it bluntly, Theresa May is prepared to start a nuclear war whereas Jeremy Corbyn won’t (see "Britain's nuclear plans: the Corbyn factor", 17 September 2015).
The implications of this very bald statement are startling in two quite different ways. The first is that starting a nuclear war would most probably be the war crime to end all war crimes; the second is that the prospect of this raised scarcely a flicker of interest in the media or the country at large, apart from the opportunity for the Conservatives to label Corbyn unpatriotic and a threat to British security.
True, any self-respecting analyst of British nuclear policy knows full well that successive political leaders may have been reluctant to talk about firing nuclear weapons. A previous column on the topic in this series remarked on the manner in which Theresa May was at least open about it (see also "Britain's nuclear-weapons future: no done deal", 21 July 2016).
Such an analyst will also know that the British government has never signed up to the idea of “no first use”, but that this is almost never stated in public. Indeed, the willingness to "go first" is typically consigned to a few weasel words hidden in the depths of a lengthy defence statement, and then only rarely.
The big boys' club
It is not easy to understand why one of the smaller nuclear powers is willing to undertake the ultimate and entirely self-defeating effort to “punch above its weight” in nuclear weapons (and other geostrategic) terms. But it helps to put this in a historical perspective. In the 1950s, Britain had not yet shed its imperial past; but it had become the world’s third nuclear power after the United States and the Soviet Union, and was seen by the British establishment as still in status a co-equal among three superpowers.
This was a radical change from the multipolar world of the 1930s. Then, six states – Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, Germany and France – were all in military competition. The second world war then saw Germany and Japan defeated, and France humbled, leaving the newly nuclear-armed Britain to see itself very much as part of the "big boys’ club".
In those days, before the advent of CND and the era of anti-nuclear campaigning, a legacy of wartime endured: namely, the military continued to see nuclear weapons as not so dissimilar from conventional weapons except in the level of power they unleashed. After all, the argument went, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had not been hugely more devastating than the conventional massed bomber raids on Hamburg and Dresden, or indeed the terrifying destruction of Tokyo by firebombing.
The notion that nuclear weapons represented just another item in the arsenal had a particular significance for Britain, which could no longer even begin to match the conventional forces of the Soviets or Americans. A fact now lost in the depths of nuclear history is that when Britain’s interests in Asia seemed threatened by the rise of Chinese communism in the 1950s, defence analysts actually theorised about the need to prevail in a war by using nuclear weapons.
One of the most influential such thinkers, John Slessor, believed that: “in most of the possible theatres of limited war… it must be accepted that it is at least improbable that we would be able to meet a major communist offensive in one of those areas without resorting to tactical nuclear weapons” (see Milan Rai, Tactical Trident, the Rifkind Doctrine and the Third World, Drava Papers, 1995).
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the UK developed the capability to drop nuclear bombs from the V-bomber force based in the Middle East and southeast Asia, and by Scimitar and Buccaneer aircraft on carriers. The ideas behind this were illustrated by the then defence minister, Duncan Sandys, in a 1957 debate:
“One must distinguish major global war, involving a head-on clash between the great powers, and minor conflicts which can be localised and which do not bring the great powers into direct collision. Limited and localised acts of aggression, for example by a satellite Communist state could, no doubt, be resisted with conventional arms, or, at worst, with tactical atomic weapons, the use of which could be confined to the battle area” (see Hansard, Volume 568, column 1765, 16 April 1957).
The idea of limited nuclear war persists to this day. It was and is a central part of Nato’s strategy of flexible response. This was originally codified in document MC 14/3 of 16 January 1968, and has long been a part of Britain’s nuclear thinking, however hidden from public view (see Lewis Betts, Duncan Sandys and British Nuclear Policy-Making, Palgrave 2016).
When Argentina overran the Falkland/Malvinas Islands in 1982, prime minister Margaret Thatcher ordered the despatch of a naval taskforce, with the defence secretary John Nott telling the House of Commons that it would carry its full range of weapons. At the time this included helicopter-borne nuclear depth-bombs for anti-submarine warfare and free-fall bombs for delivery by Sea Harriers. There followed a row within Whitehall over the wisdom of putting such weapons at risk in a warzone. Some, at least, were reportedly transferred to an auxiliary, RFA Regent, which was deployed to the south Atlantic but, unlike its sister ship RFA Resource, was kept clear of the warzone (see "Nuclear weapons: the oxygen of debate", 29 December 2006).
In recent years there has been an assumption that Britain has given up the idea of limited nuclear war, having withdrawn all its tactical nuclear weapons in the 1990s. But this is not correct, since a low-yield variant of the otherwise very powerful Trident thermonuclear warhead is available ("low yield" in this case meaning merely the size of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bomb).
A new danger
All this, and much more, has long been in the public domain (see Paul Rogers, Sub-Strategic Trident: A Slow Burning Fuse, London Defence Papers No 34, Brassey’s for the Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College, London, 1996). Yet it almost never figures in the public debate about defence. Indeed, on rare occasions when people like Jeremy Corbyn raise the issue, they are labelled security risks.
In part such attitudes are still explained by the British establishment’s fundamental need to see the UK as a major world player, especially at a time of relative decline. But there is also the matter of generational change. These issues were debated In the 1980s, at least to an extent. But the cold war ended in 1990, and few people under the age of 40 have much awareness of just how dangerous that period was.
Today, with Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un and even Theresa May around, the world has entered a new period of uncertainty and potential nuclear danger. Yet there are few signs of any kind of rational debate emerging in the weeks of campaigning until Britain's general election on 8 June. Instead, there is the appalling prospect of serious discussion about UK nuclear weapons being submerged by accusations of unpatriotic behaviour and threats to national security.
This could of course, change, if the Labour leadership were to persist in the following questions to Theresa May, questions which are entirely reasonable in the context of the last few days:
If a potentially violent crisis develops over North Korea and President Trump requests British support would she:
* provide political support?
* provide military assistance as a symbol of the special relationship?
* ensure that the UK nuclear force was maintained on a high state of alert in case of an untoward escalation of a crisis?