Is it time for Britain to give up its nuclear weapons?

Faced with a price tag of billions to replace Britain's aging Trident submarine fleet, some are arguing that it should be abandoned – even if doing so might reduce the UK's stature in the world.

Paul Hackett/Reuters
Scottish National Party leader and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (c.) joins a protest against the Trident nuclear missile system in London on Feb. 27.

Britain is one of the world's few nuclear-armed powers.

But should it be?

That question is under increasing public debate in Britain, especially after Defense Minister Michael Fallon's announcement that the government will invest £642 million ($910 million) in Britain’s nuclear submarines.

“Our nuclear deterrent provides the ultimate guarantee of our security and our way of life,” Mr. Fallon said in a statement. “That’s why we are getting on with this investment.” The announcement seemed intended to preempt a vote on Trident renewal by the British parliament.

But with the threat of nuclear annihilation overshadowed by more immediate economic and national issues – including tensions between Scotland and Westminster and between London and Brussels – some Britons are asking whether the country's small but expensive fleet of nuclear submarines is worthwhile any more.

'Insurance policy'

During the British nuclear program’s six-decade existence, the former empire has shrunk to a mid-sized power that sometimes feels at odds even with its allies in the European Union. Trident, however, puts it in the same league as its fellow UN Security Council members, the United States, Russia, China, and France – all nuclear-armed states.

“Since the end of the cold war, the justification for Trident has really been that of a long-term 'insurance policy' made on the basis that we cannot predict the shape of the security environment in 15-20 years’ time,” explains Ben Jones, a former defense adviser for the Liberal Democrat party and an academic defense expert. “For many this is not enough to justify the expense, although I suspect that Russia's recent behavior will have put some agnostics back in the pro-Trident camp.”

Still, any NATO ally is automatically protected by the US nuclear umbrella.

“There’s no need for Britain to have its own nuclear deterrent, just as little as there is a need for Lithuania to have its own nuclear deterrent,” notes Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “Britain’s nuclear deterrent has more to do with tradition, national prestige, and some people in London believing that Britain must have its own nuclear strike option despite the US security guarantee.”

Indeed, Trident, is in a sense, the military equivalent of Brexit: a way for Britain to publicly beef up its status as a country that stands above its EU and NATO allies. A parliamentary vote on the future of Trident, initially requested by the Ministry of Defense for around Easter, has been postponed and is now unlikely to take place in the current parliamentary session, which ends in late June. The Brexit referendum will be held on June 23.

Worth the jobs?

Britain's nuclear stockpile is, in fact, rather modest: some 215 warheads carried by the four nuclear submarines that sail around the world’s oceans, compared to the US nuclear arsenal of an estimated 6,970 warheads that can be dropped from planes, mounted on ballistic missiles or carried by submarines.

Russia maintains the world’s largest nuclear stockpile, an estimated 7,300 warheads, and even France and China have more warheads – an estimated 300 and 260 each – than Britain, according to the Federation of American Scientists, which maintains the most trusted database of world nuclear stockpiles.

And the program is not cheap: the government estimates total cost of Trident renewal to be £31 billion.

But renewing Trident would create jobs. As a result, even Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s pacifist, left-wing leader, supports keeping the nuclear submarines. In January, he suggested that the submarines could sail around the world without nuclear weapons, an idea met with widespread ridicule as the warhead-less nuclear submarines would signal British impotence. Some Labour parliamentarians, meanwhile oppose renewing the submarines.

In Scotland, where the submarines are based, Trident is also a sore subject. While the fleet provides jobs to many around its Faslane base, the nation's dominant Scottish National Party is utterly opposed to their presence. "We believe that nuclear weapons are immoral, ineffective and expensive. In times of imposed austerity, the £100 billion which would be spent on a Trident replacement over the next 30 years could be far, far more effectively used on improving healthcare, childcare, education and building a better future for our children," the party argues on its website.

Divided nation

The fact that Fallon announced the new investment – which will be followed by several other disbursements – before Parliament has voted on the matter has left nuclear disarmament activists and Scottish politicians alike incensed.

“Yes, Trident is a status symbol,” acknowledges Arthur West, a Trident opponent in Ayrshire, Scotland. “But it’s a very expensive status symbol.” As Anthony King, a professor of war studies at Warwick University, points out, the money to renew Trident may be better spent on conventional weapons as well as emerging capabilities such as drones and cyber-defense.

Most Britons, however, support keeping the expensive status symbol: a January poll shows 51 percent in favor of full renewal, 29 percent in favor Mr. Corbyn’s non-nuclear subs, and only 20 percent opposed to renewal. Scots trend the other way: 38 percent oppose Trident renewal, 36 percent in favor, and 26 percent for non-nuclear subs. Trident is certain to play a large role when Scots go to the polls on May 16.

For now, Mr. West and the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament are occupying themselves monitoring the transport of Trident warheads across their nation. Sighed West, “Nuclear warheads are part of life here.”

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