Why the UK should still disarm its nuclear weapons

In the run up to Scotland’s vote on independence, pundits predicted that independence could lead to the end of the U.K.’s nuclear weapons program. Most of the attention was focused on the need to relocate British nuclear submarines, currently stationed in Scotland, in the event of a “yes” vote. Conventional thought held that since the Scots have now decided to preserve the union, the U.K.’s nuclear program can continue as normal. However, this would be a dire mistake for the United Kingdom and its allies. The U.K. should move ahead to dismantle a program that wastes precious resources on weapons that do not contribute to Britain’s national security. 

First, nuclear weapons are a drain on national resources. Even with the economic might of Scotland, the union is struggling to maintain both conventional and nuclear forces. Britain’s current fleet of nuclear submarines is reaching the end of its service life and will need to be replaced over the next decade. This is an incredibly complex process that is estimated to cost roughly $58.1 billion, nearly one fourth of Britain’s defense budget. This comes at a time when the U.K. is already struggling to find the funds to maintain its conventional forces.

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Years of deep budget cuts have taken a heavy toll, leading the military to recently lay off 20,000 regular army personnel, roughly 20 percent of its total force. With a sizable national debt and a slow-growing economy, the U.K. can scarcely afford to spend more on defense. Thus, the billions spent on nuclear weapons are diverting funds from other crucial areas such as education, healthcare and conventional forces.

Second, nuclear weapons have failed to make the United Kingdom safer. Nuclear weapons provided no defense or deterrence against the 1996 Manchester bombings, the 1988 Lockerbie bombing or the 2005 London subway bombings, the most serious attacks on the U.K.’s territory in recent memory. Nor do nuclear submarines guard against the growing threat of cyber-attacks, a mounting concern for the future.

The U.K.’s nuclear program is built for a one purpose, to respond to the inconceivable event that an advisory launches an unprovoked nuclear strike on Britain. There is simply no evidence that this has ever been a realistic threat. Furthermore, if the U.K. were to disarm, it would still be protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. If American nuclear weapons are sufficient to protect South Korea, whose capital is within artillery range of North Korea, then it should be more than capable of reassuring the British, who are thousands of miles away from any hostile nuclear nation.

Finally, Britain’s leaders should recognize that the escalating cost of nuclear weapons damages their standing with NATO allies. The United States has no need for the U.K.’s nuclear program, having 14 nuclear submarines and more than 1,825 deployed nuclear warheads of our own. Meanwhile, NATO’s other major members also care little about Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet. France has its own nuclear arsenal, while Germany is predisposed against nuclear weapons. Thus, the continuation of Britain’s nuclear forces does little to strengthen its alliances.

In contrast, Britain’s allies care about reinforcing economic ties to the U.K. By spending billions on nuclear weapons, the United Kingdom is diverting money away from international trade. This harms the economies of both the U.K. and its major trading partners including the United States.

Similarly, Britain’s allies are concerned about its inability to maintain conventional forces. The U.K. has been a stalwart American ally and member of NATO, contributing significant forces to the campaigns in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. The U.K.’s allies are concerned about the British forces stationed beside them rather than a fleet of submarines that have done little but cruise around the Atlantic Ocean for 40 years.

While Scotland has elected to preserve the union, Britain’s leaders should abandon their nuclear weapons program.

Harris is program assistant for Nuclear Disarmament at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

This post has been corrected from a previous version. 

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