As if Brexit, a crashing cricket defeat against Australia, and a winter flu epidemic were not enough to be wrestling with, Britain is also in the throes of another painful defence review as it continues to try to maintain the essence of global military standing in a respectable but sluggish economy. At present, the United Kingdom’s defense chiefs are grappling with what looks like a £20 billion ($27.9 billion) budget shortfall over the next two decades. The single most important response would be to look again at from where the money comes for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. The United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons are currently funded out of the overstretched defense budget even though, especially in the post-Cold War era, they are more a political asset than a military one. So why are genuine military assets like regiments, ships, and aircraft being sacrificed in its name?
As the politicians look at what might be cut, from whole units, with their own roles and traditions to new equipment, an escalating crescendo of retired and serving military officers — culminating in the recent pronouncements of Chief of the General Staff Sir Nick Carter — talk about the need for more spending, not less.
One could dismiss the debate as a combination of the inevitable ambitions of generals, defense companies and their associated allies and boosters, to get more shiny toys and the political authority that comes with big budgets. Or maybe it could be considered a continuation of Britain’s slow, painful therapy as it grapples with no longer being an imperial power or a world-shaping colossus.
Although it is always easy to make the case for more spending, it is usually rather harder to say where the money should come from. In Britain’s case, after all, there are other pressing calls on the public purse, from the National Health Service (still, for all the Brits’ habitual grumbling, a world-class healthcare system) to education. Furthermore, the United Kingdom already spends more on defense than any other European country in absolute terms: £36 billion ($50.2 billion).
So why is there such a shortfall? There have been the usual cost overruns on new projects, and some bad decisions. But a crucial factor is the proportion of available funds spent on two particular projects: Britain’s two new aircraft carriers (and the F-35s they will carry), and its nuclear deterrent.
The latter is based on the United Kingdom’s submarine fleet, currently consisting of four Vanguard-class SSBNs. They have, since 1992, maintained Britain’s “continuous at sea deterrent” capability, with at least one always deployed. These boats are getting older, though, so London is committed to the Successor program. This will see four new-generation Dreadnought-class submarines armed with 8-12 Trident II D5 submarine-launched cruise missiles, with the first deployed in 2028, and a planned 35-year service life.
It is expected to cost £15 billion ($20.9 billion) to build the submarines and their associated infrastructure, but based on a series of statements made in Parliament, the overall program will have an annual operating cost of around £2 billion ($2.8 billion), or perhaps 5 to 6 percent of the total defense budget.
This is by no means insignificant. That’s enough to buy a new Type 26 frigate each year, and have enough left over to pick up the likely extra real costs incurred if the pound remains weak against the dollar.
No wonder there is an increasing chorus of voices calling for the cost of the nuclear deterrent to be taken out of the defense budget and paid for separately, from other government resources. This would free up considerable resources for conventional forces now and in the future. While this might simply look like a way of trying to sugar-coat a substantial increase in military spending, it actually has considerable merit, because Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is not a military asset. That’s not to say it is not an asset, just one of a different kind.
Of course, a brace of Tridents, each with at least three thermonuclear warheads, could comprehensively ruin someone’s day, but the issue is when, if ever, they would be used. I have been struck in my conversations with Russian military analysts and officers by how little attention they give Britain’s nuclear forces. In effect, they consider them nothing more than an adjunct to the far larger U.S. strategic arsenal. In part, this is because the Russians have an exaggerated sense of the extent to which, in the words of one veteran of Soviet command college, “NATO is America’s Warsaw Pact.” But it also reflects a realistic notion of the limitations of these missiles’ use.
When Argentina was weighing the risks of invading the Falkland Islands, they got much wrong, but what they got right was that the United Kingdom would not retaliate by nuking Buenos Aires. That would have been responding to an act of war with a war crime. Likewise, from fighting the Taliban and Islamic State to ousting Saddam Hussein, Britain and its allies have had to rely on conventional forces.
The only real scenario in which the use of Britain’s nuclear weapons is conceivable is a full-scale conflict with a peer aggressor, which at present could only be Russia. Setting aside that the Russians are no more eager for apocalypse than anyone else — not least because they seem more bullish about NATO’s unity and determination than the West is — the other reason is that Britain would only use its missiles in concert with its allies. And that means America, and in that context, what real difference would Britain’s nukes make? You only need to blow up the world once.
So it is hard to come up with a plausible scenario in which Britain’s nuclear deterrent forces are either truly independent or militarily meaningful. But does that mean they are pointless? Far from it.
Having nuclear missiles is more than just a Freudian compensation for the loss of empire. It elevates Britain to the global top table, or, perhaps more accurately, keeps it there. By GDP the United Kingdom may be fifth in the world, behind Japan and Germany, but do the latter have nuclear weapons? Ukraine and South Korea may have larger armies, but do they have nuclear weapons? The capacity to be a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, something de facto reserved for recognized nuclear powers, and to be a meaningful voice on more than just proliferation issues is an intangible asset, one the U.K. government acknowledges and relishes. Former U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter also noted this when he said Britain’s status as a nuclear power allowed it to “continue to play [an] outsized role on the global stage.“ Besides, whether or not the nuclear deterrent helps the faltering “special relationship” with Washington, any moves to cancel the purchase of U.S. missiles undoubtedly would harm those ties. All this helps explain why British Prime Minister Theresa May has said it would be “sheer madness” to give up Trident.
There is an entirely legitimate argument to be had over whether this geopolitical clout is worth what could turn out to be £70 billion ($97.6 billion) over the lifespan of the Dreadnought/Trident program. But the key point is that these are ostensibly military forces that in practice have an overwhelmingly political role. Of course, all armed forces have a political dimension, from cheering the population in a parade to being a shop window for your nation’s defense products. But when the military rationale is almost absent, it is time to recognize that.
If Britain wants its nukes, then it is making a political choice to buy a political asset. Although this will inevitably entail tough choices about where to find the money, political assets ought not to be a drain on the defense budget, but their own line in the national budget. While British servicemen and servicewomen will continue proudly to run, protect, and maintain this capability, it should not be bought at the expense of real defensive strength.
Prof. Mark Galeotti is senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and head of its Centre for European Security.
Image: Ministry of Defence