On September 30, Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, in a clear break from all of his predecessors, stated categorically that in his opinion it was “immoral to have or use nuclear weapons.” The usual UK internal debate on nuclear weapons has also been sharpened by the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and the electoral success of the staunchly antinuclear Scottish National Party (SNP). Corbyn—the leader of a national party and a would-be prime minister—has ensured that this debate will only grow in intensity and emotion, but such emotion risks blinding those involved to the strategic realities and possible opportunities.

The UK Nuclear Weapons Debate

John Gower
Rear Admiral John Gower was the United Kingdom’s Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Nuclear And Chemical, Biological) from late 2011 until his retirement in December 2014.

The United Kingdom has maintained its nuclear deterrent since its first test almost exactly sixty-three years ago. Since the late 1990s, this deterrent has been borne solely by Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles carried on board Vanguard-class submarines (at least one of which is at sea at all times). These now aging submarines are due to be retired in the late 2020s. Parliament approved starting the replacement acquisition process in a 2007 vote. The Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 reaffirmed this parliamentary decision, subject to a review of the viability of alternatives to a new generation of submarines. This review was conducted by Liberal Democrat ministers who had opposed the like-for-like replacement of Vanguard-class submarines. Yet, in the summer of 2013, even this review agreed that building a new generation of submarines was the most cost-effective and achievable path to a continuity of deterrence.

After the success of the Conservative Party in the UK’s general election in May 2015, the Conservative government is now preparing for the 2016 parliamentary vote on the Main Gate investment decision to place firm contracts to build a new class of replacement submarines and to determine whether earlier decisions that a continuous at sea deterrence could only be delivered by four submarines remain valid.

Shortly after the election, the opposition Labour Party started its own process to elect a new leader, and in mid-September, Corbyn, from the left of the party with views that he regularly characterizes as “democratically socialist,” won the vote. On October 17, he was appointed as vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, of which he has been a member since his school days. Although Corbyn has noticeably toned down many of his earlier policy statements on defense since becoming Labour leader, his assertion in late September that he would not under any circumstances employ nuclear weapons came from the core of his beliefs—but not evidently the beliefs of all he leads. Since 2007, official Labour Party policy has been to support replacing the Vanguard-class submarines on a like-for-like basis, and Corbyn failed to convince the national party to even debate the issue at its annual conference in early October.

The discussion is given impetus by both global and national developments. In the United Kingdom, the pro-independence SNP, which supports the immediate removal of all UK nuclear weapons from Scotland, where they are based, has enjoyed a huge increase in support. It lost an independence referendum in 2014 by only about 10 percent and then went on to win a remarkable 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats in the 2015 general election. This landslide has allowed it to exert its influence nationally in a way that has never been seen before. On the nuclear weapons issue, the SNP almost certainly views the new Labour leader as a natural ally. On November 1, the Scottish Labour Party voted in line with Corbyn’s personal views and the SNP on this issue, splitting itself from the full Labour Party; the schisms and discussion can only intensify.

The debate surrounding the next vote should take into account—as earlier votes have done—the long-term security interests of the United Kingdom and its allies, and it should face the reality of the world that exists, not the world that some would prefer existed. Corbyn’s statement on nuclear weapons risks being seen as a more extreme example of what author Ben Judah, writing in the Independent about the Labour leader’s position on NATO membership, called “letting the fantasy politics of a North Islington dinner table override reality.”

During my over thirty-six-year career in the Royal Navy, I served Labour, Conservative, and coalition political leadership; I carry no candle for any particular party. It is clear, however, that, should Corbyn become the prime minister, the day of his election would be the last day on which Royal Navy submarines maintained their unbroken deterrent patrol. The dismantling of the deterrent would swiftly follow. Without the possibility that in the most extreme circumstances the United Kingdom—which means the prime minister, when it comes to decisions to employ nuclear weapons—would launch its Trident missiles, the deterrent effect would immediately evaporate and their continued deployment would become pointless.

The UK and NATO  

Much has been written in the press about what Corbyn’s views on nuclear weapons say about his attitude toward UK national security. Very little has been written about the implications of those views for the United Kingdom’s position in the NATO alliance or its relationship to the United States and France, the UK’s two closest defense partners.

NATO is an extremely diverse alliance; one of its core strengths. Among its members, there is always strong debate about virtually every policy question faced by the alliance. This is especially true for its nuclear posture, which is robustly discussed at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Yet, time and time again—most recently at NATO’s 2014 summit in Wales—this diverse membership has reaffirmed the necessity of retaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent as the bedrock of its security. That deterrent is provided by the nuclear weapons of three of its members: the United Kingdom, France, and, primarily, the United States. A number of other members provide dual-capable aircraft that can carry and deliver U.S. nuclear bombs and so contribute to this mission through nuclear burden sharing.

Should he lead the country in the future, Corbyn’s views on nuclear weapons grate with NATO and call into question recent statements from the shadow chancellor (the Labour Party’s spokesman for economic issues), who provided assurances that Corbyn no longer advocated for the withdrawal of the UK from NATO. His advocated approach would tear the UK from NATO’s nuclear consensus. Confusion would reign, and in deterrence confusion is anathema.

While it would be presumptive to prejudge other nations’ reactions to effective UK unilateral disarmament, both the United States and France, given their robust attitudes toward nuclear deterrence, would probably see it as a betrayal of collective security commitments. Even if it managed to cling to NATO membership, the United Kingdom would undoubtedly lose its current strong voice in both NATO and in the wider defense arena.

So, if unilateral disarmament is not the right way forward, how should the UK approach the imminent vote and, perhaps more importantly, the subsequent twenty-five years of deterrence?

A Necessary Deterrent  

Both France and the United States place far greater importance on nuclear deterrence in their defense policies than does the United Kingdom. All three nuclear-weapon states within NATO have, however, agreed that, while nuclear weapons exist—particularly in the hands of a notable few unstable and unpredictable states—the retention of credible and effective nuclear deterrents is an essential element of both national and collective security. It is this deterrence that has contributed to the last offensive use of nuclear weapons being the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

No one (or at least no one credible) argues that nuclear deterrence is a panacea against all threats. NATO’s nuclear nations are not specific about the circumstances under which they might employ nuclear weapons, as a measure of ambiguity aids deterrence. Nonetheless, it is clear from their declaratory policy that they have in mind extreme threats, including those from weapons of mass destruction, which cannot be countered by other means. Citing the impotence of nuclear deterrence in the face of the threat from the self-proclaimed Islamic State or the failure of nuclear deterrence to prevent the September 11 terrorist attacks—as Corbyn did and others regularly do—is a meaningless diversion.

This August marked the seventieth anniversary of the dropping of the two nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Efforts by certain non-nuclear-weapon states and nongovernmental organizations to highlight the humanitarian consequences of nuclear-weapon use have gathered momentum, including at a series of three intergovernmental conferences. Separate from the diplomacy surrounding Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), this process has the objective of achieving an international convention that would ban and eliminate all nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom did not attend the first two conferences, but did join the United States in Vienna for the third. The United Kingdom’s view has, however, remained that any process separate from the NPT would be distracting and not further the long-term objective of creating a world where nuclear weapons can be safely removed without disturbing strategic stability—by which I mean a world largely free of major interstate war. This view is shared by the United States and, more vehemently, by France. It is precisely because of the terrible humanitarian consequences of nuclear-weapon employment that a deterrent is necessary until omnilateral disarmament can be achieved.

In any case, it is clear that a nuclear-weapon convention, even if it could be brought into force, would not add one iota to strategic stability. There would be no deterrent to those who would most likely flout the convention—states whose behavior adheres at best only sporadically to global norms.

The most robust convention against weapons of mass destruction—the Chemical Weapons Convention—was no hindrance to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. What was lacking was sufficient deterrence against that use. The almost complete destruction of his capability as a result of his early use was due solely to the resolution of a number of states, working through the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and, most decisively, the unexpected agreement of the United States and Russia in Geneva, the latter of which held sway over Assad and pressurized him to destroy his capability and relinquish the vast majority of his chemical arsenal. Even after Syria’s accession to the convention in 2013, I have remained in agreement with those who believe that Assad has continued to use some form of chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war.

In the case of the proposed nuclear-weapon convention, the dangerous outliers would not sign, but it is likely that some of those who deter them would do so. The result would be a weakening of nuclear deterrence that would increase global risks.

There is no credible doubt that nuclear deterrence has played a significant part in the extended break from major interstate warfare that the world has enjoyed since 1945. Nuclear physicist Niels Bohr’s assessment of nuclear weapons as a “perpetual menace to human society” slightly missed the mark. It is the human capacity for bloodshed on an ever increasing scale, exhibited well before the first nuclear detonation at Trinity in July 1945, which is the perpetual menace. Nuclear weapons provided another terrible means to magnify this capacity and yet, since Nagasaki, the world has continuously shied away from their use in anger. Over this period, the unique risks of nuclear weapons have undoubtedly been outweighed by this extended peace. This radical shift, compared to the violence of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has enabled a more connected and universally prosperous world where the rights of the individual are increasingly recognized over the rights of the state.

Time will tell whether the world becomes so intertwined and co-dependent that the role of force in international affairs diminishes significantly. The recent events in Ukraine, in Iraq, in Syria, on the Korean Peninsula, and in the South China Sea show it would be premature to conclude that we have reached that point today—but the continued existence of interstate warfare is by no means an enduring given. That said, there is nothing in today’s security landscape that should give any comfort that, even if all nuclear weapons were simultaneously eliminated, mankind would be as willing to step away from interstate war. Moreover, if such a nuclear relinquishment were one sided—if those nuclear-weapon states for whom adherence to norms is more in their nature chose to abandon their nuclear weapons but others did not—then the risks would be significantly greater.

An Opportunity for a Realistic Disarmament Agenda  

The extension of the United Kingdom’s ownership of its nuclear deterrent by building a new class of submarines, therefore, remains strategically sound and necessary for the collective security of the UK and its allies. It also offers a reasonably predictable and easily understandable window of opportunity for making progress on a safe and realistic disarmament agenda. The United States and France have made, or are about to make, similar decisions to extend their capabilities. All of these states will be facing similar replacement decisions in around thirty years. In the interim, they should, within the architecture of the current NPT regime, place the burden equally on the non-nuclear-weapon states and the nuclear-weapon states to work toward a security structure and paradigm that would allow the omnilateral relinquishment of nuclear weapons.

There remains much to be done by the nuclear-weapon states. Other nations need to match the transparency of the United Kingdom, the United States, and France. The reductions by the United States and Russia in strategic nuclear weapons, and those of the United Kingdom, in particular, should be matched by other states holding nuclear weapons. China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan all have growing arsenals; they, and Israel, prefer opacity to transparency. Movement in this direction could only help to dissuade aspirant nuclear-weapon states in the Middle East.

And yet, the abolition of nuclear weapons cannot rest alone on the recognized and the de facto nuclear-weapon states. The Middle East is a microcosm of the challenges facing the disarmament pledge enshrined in Article VI of the NPT.1 Until a security architecture exists in which the removal of all weapons of mass destruction in the region is seen by all states there as positive for their national and regional security interests, no progress at all will be made; in reality, the same principle applies globally.

Article VI, as well as the demands on the nuclear-weapon states to achieve nuclear disarmament, creates a global obligation on every state to create a new security architecture that would make the world safe enough for nuclear weapons to be eliminated through the establishment of “a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” For me, a concrete step toward this goal would be an agreed statement on what such a world might look like across the full range of security and stability issues—one to which all of the current nuclear-weapon states could agree. Optimistically, this twenty-first-century global security model could create the international security conditions under which the current nuclear-weapon states could agree on and follow a coherent and omnilateral nuclear disarmament process.

That is a long-term strategic goal, but it is also one that could be achieved within the lifetime of the next generation of UK (and U.S. and French) submarines. It requires all states to participate. It is coherent with the position of successive UK governments of all shades and those of the UK’s allies. It does not trifle with the long-term security of NATO members and partners and could offer hope that, within the lifetimes of my children, U.S. President Barack Obama’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons—as articulated in his 2009 Prague speech—could be achieved. Precipitate, idealistic, and unilateral disarmament would contribute nothing to this goal and risk much.

Rear Admiral John Gower was the United Kingdom’s Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Nuclear And Chemical, Biological) from late 2011 until his retirement in December 2014.


1 This article states that “each of the Parties to the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation] Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”