Comments on the Trident Commission

At the beginning of last month the ‘independent, cross-party inquiry to examine UK nuclear weapons policy’ – otherwise known  as the Trident Commission, issued its final report.

The three co-chairs, each a representative of their party, were Lord Des Browne (Labour), Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Conservative) and Sir Menzies Campbell (Lib-Dems): the other Commissioners were Prof Alyson Bailes (Former Head of the FCO Security Policy Department); Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former UK Ambassador to UN; Lord Craigie, former Chief of the Defence Staff; Prof Lord Hennessey, Queen Mary University of London; and Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal and immediate Past President of the Royal Society. The Commissioners, who through their eminence rightfully deserve great respect, were served by staff members and interns of BASIC (British American Security Information Council) who also drafted the report; but the report, prepared without access to any classified briefings, is the sole and final responsibility of the Commissioners and is completely independent of any of its funders.1

The Commission approached the issue of nuclear disarmament principally from the perspective of Britain’s national security, while recognising the close links to global security: it therefore focused on three questions –

  • Should the UK continue to be a Nuclear Weapon State (NWS)?
  • If so, is Trident the only or best option?
  • What more can and should the UK do to facilitate faster progress on global nuclear disarmament?

The Commission will be revisiting the identified issues and updating its findings prior to the next General Election.

The following points the report which strike me most are: –

  • The Commission recommends the UK to go ahead with a Trident Replacement programme but new caveats are offered, some of which go against frequently-cited dogma from the pro-nuclear lobby. These include
    • rejecting the case for retaining a military nuclear capacity as a general insurance against an uncertain future
      • They postulate three particular scenarios which may be summarised (not in their actual words) as
        • Russia (for which concerns are much increased as a result of the conflict in Ukraine
        • China (or Iran); and
        • the emergence of an overwhelming threat of bio weapons or comparable WMD’
        • but the Commissioners differ among themselves on the relative likelihood of these scenarios
    • That if the UK did give up its NWs, its status as a NWS within the definition of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would NOT be affected, so it could continue to play a full part in the global negotiations toward a nuclear weapon free world.
    • That in order to give greater confidence to the international community in preparation for multilateral disarmament, the MoD seriously study the ‘steps down the nuclear ladder’ such as
      • Further reductions in warheads
      • Relaxing CASD – ‘continuous at sea deterrence’
      • A much longer timetable for replacement.
      • For fissile materials (FM), the UK should reduce
        • its FM stocks
        • their means of producing FM
        • ‘Certain forms’ of their development or modernisation
    • The Commission concedes that ‘the true independence of the British nuclear deterrence … is … a hostage to American goodwill’ but agrees with an expert statement that there is no cause to be ‘the least troubled by (this) American connection’.
    • Other caveats
      • Arguments that a replacement programme would provide employment are not justifiable
      • UK’s possession of NWs should not be a shield behind which the UK could engage in military operations abroad, as it could encourage proliferation
    • The Commission also views ‘with suspicion’ any unilateral action by the UK, either
      • the development of advanced military (nuclear?) capabilities, or
      • abandoning ‘strategic relations’ to ‘maintain some sort of purity or isolation’ (i.e. unilateral nuclear disarmament).
  • The Commission does recognise the inherent instability posed by expected developments in the 21st century – major power shifts, huge population pressures, climate change, persistent poverty and inequality, terrorism, conflict, state failure, and the rise of non-state actors and new weaponry.
    • But ‘we should be cautious about apportioning too much theoretical   stabilising power to our own nuclear deterrent’.
    • and any NWS outside the NPT (India etc.) needs ‘to be brought urgently into stable deterrence ways of thinking
  • The Commission is concerned that any attempt to improve the UK’s current (2010) ‘Declaratory Policy Statement’ (DPS) on the use of nuclear weapons might endanger flexibility of future UK leaderships, will lack credibility and weaken clarity and authority; but the Commission favours developments to improve clarity through negotiations between NWSs. (The UK’s current DPS is not to use NWs against Non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) signatory to and not in material breach of the NPT – the Commission claims that this DPS is (probably) compliant with the Advisory Opinion of the ICJ in 1996.)
  • The Commission also recommends that the P5 ‘would do well’ to engage with the intergovernmental conferences following those held at Oslo in March 2013 and Nayarit, Mexico in February 2014.
  • The Commission also concedes that it has become hard to sustain the NPT Review process in the current geopolitical environment.



I do respect the sheer brainpower behind the report but am deeply disappointed (but not surprised) by the recommendation to go ahead with a Trident replacement programme, and strongly disagree. Furthermore, in an attempt to re-assure the Conservative Party, an accompanying paper2 by Sir Malcolm Rifkind gives a clear cost analysis in the context of current UK government expenditure, which states …. ‘a decision not to renew would not make any operating savings immediately available – indeed decommissioning costs could almost certainly make cancelling Trident the more expensive option in the short term. It may be reasonable to wish to ease current austerity, but cancelling Trident would not enable you to do it.

This statement – quite apart from the cavalier tone regarding ‘current austerity’ – is a clear demonstration of the folly, not least economic, behind the UK nuclear weapons programme: indeed, if true (it probably is – and the ‘short term’ may not be all that short) it indicates that we may be trapped in a circle of expenditure which will promote UK possession of NWs for a very long time. This is in spite of the Commissioners’ ‘full support’ for ‘a much more serious multilateral effort to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons’. Yet the tone of accepting the status quo and justifying the continuing possession of NWs by each of the P5 nations while also hoping to bring the nonP5 possessors (India etc.)‘into stable deterrence ways of thinking’ indicates how some of the Commission are wedded to current concepts of deterrence in spite of the penultimate bullet point above (on Oslo and Nayarit).

The report seems stuck in a rut of conservatism and reluctance to wander too far from the comfort zone of the deluded present, implying that it is much better for the UK

  • to retain a semblance of an independent nuclear capability while
  • continuing to strive for clarity in its ‘Declaratory Policy’ without weakening credibility (which might encourage rather than discourage nuclear aggression); and
  • to retain its place at the ‘top table’ and use its influence beneficially.

Furthermore, the Commission seems not to appreciate the peculiar nature of the UK’s stockpile of ‘Fission Materials’ (FM). Although the proposed ‘Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty’ (first mooted during the 2000 Review Conference of the NPT, but which remains in limbo) is for military FM only (otherwise it would have no chance anyway), not all NWSs separate their military from their civilian intent: France, in particular, openly regards them as virtually interchangable, which at least has the virtue of honesty. The UK has over 100 tonnes of civil plutonium and 1000 tonnes of HEU in its stockpile (although not all is of immediate military grade). This is housed mostly at Sellafield and is enough to overwhelm the world many many times over. When the Commission recommends that the UK reduces its FM stockpile it is only referring to its military FM, which is far less. Although there is no conceivable case for any of the UK’s civil FM stockpile to be coverted for military use (which nevertheless would not be too difficult) it cannot be denied that reducing the military stockpile only would be an empty gesture. There are also difficulties in distinguishing between ‘maintenance’ of nuclear weapons-materials quality (to keep it usable and therefore credible) and ‘upgrading’, ‘modernisation’ and ‘enhancement’ (which would be in breach of the NPT).

Nevertheless there are encouraging signs of a shift in opinion at high levels within the UK political Establishment, which can be built on. In particular, the admittedly luke warm acknowledgement of the discussion on ‘Threshold Status’ and the proposed ‘steps down the ladder’, described in more detail in a background paper by Ian Davis,3 do encourage further discussion down such routes within the UK.

The Commssion’s report ends on the following points.

  • If the decision is to renew Trident, they recognise the need to minimise any harmful impact on international efforts and to prevent proliferation (and imply that it is possible to do so)
  • Further and more active steps are needed than the UK’s reduction of its arsenal so far, its role in the P5 discussions on deterrence in the 21st century, and on the steps down the nuclear ladder: some Commissioners felt that renewing Trident would detract from the UK being a ‘strong contributor’ to global reduction of NWs while others felt that any going alone by the UK would be less important than considering its military capabilities
  • Were the UK to ‘break ranks’ with the rest of the NWSs it might ‘help to breathe new optimism’ in the NPT agenda were other States to take a positive attitude, but at the risk of the UK falling in status to a ‘middle power’ along side others in Europe.

Almost at the end of the report is an acknowledgement that the NPT process needs strengthening, with tighter safeguards and other co-operative arms control processes and practical and verifiable moves toward a world free of nuclear weapons. I find it fascinating but somewhat depressing to note an apparently grudging admittance that a world WITH nuclear weapons is too dangerous to contemplate – indeed, the main encouragement to anti-nuclear-weapons campaigners in the last decade has been the article by Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn in the Wall Street Journal published in 2007. However, the Commission seems to place little emphasis on how the dire threats they themselves describe would actually work out in the event of a nuclear war – the possible slow starvation of millions if not billions of people most of whom were no party to the decision to fire those weapons. Nor is there any real discussion on how to counter the horizontal proliferation beyond the current nine acknowledged NWSs – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Japan, etc.. Sadly, the Commission seems content to glide down the path of nuclear weapons-reduction casting anxious looks either side for bogeys – real and imagined (for examples of the latter, read Eric Schlosser’s ‘Command and Control’ published earlier this year4) – assuming that time will eventually be on their side. Either that or, in their heart of hearts they cannot really conceive a world without nuclear weapons, a form of ‘security’ which I (but not it seems the Commission) fear risks being proved, at huge costs, utterly fanciful.

There is much to be gained in the sphere of ‘confidence building’ by bold action to demonstrate that the future of humankind is our top priority. The Commissioners may well be correct to identify the major threats to the future of humankind as Russia, etc (see above) but the best way to deal with such threats is not by raising the military or economic stakes without prospect of resolution. However reprehensible the violent invasion of sovereign territories and the development of biological weapons are, such tragedies are never in isolation. This is true for Ukraine, Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, the South China Seas, etc. Even events such as the Quebecois and Scottish Referenda are not in isolation. At least the Scots and the rest of the UK are proceding peacefully.

The threat of nuclear weapons will not be removed until all world leaders and peoples feel safer without them. It may be very hard to imagine a Russian or Israeli leadership willing to forego its nuclear arsenal, but the world was not that far away in the late 1980’s. Self-interested parties caused any opportunities then to be lost: a substantial build-up in international confidence will be required before we can get that close again but we must continue trying.

I recommend that any interested members of Medact – or indeed non-members –  participate through our ‘Nuclear Interest Group’ in furthering the debate on UK Trident replacement within national bodies, governmental and non-governmental, and in the greater world of nuclear disarmament diplomacies.

August 2014

The views expressed, and any misunderstandings of the Report, are the sole responsibility of the author, Frank Boulton.

Further reading

  1. The Trident Commission Concluding Report, July 2014

Details of contributors and funders can be found in the Report

  1. Sir Malcolm Rifkind.  A Conservative approach to the forthcoming debate on Trident. WMD Awareness and BASIC, July 2014
  2. Later steps down the nuclear ladder: threshold status
  3. Command and Control by Eric Schlosser – book review

Also see “Response to the Trident Commission Report by Dr Nick Ritchie; July 2014