Boris Johnson announced yesterday that the UK will increase its nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling from 180 to 260 as an ‘ultimate insurance policy’ in response to an ‘evolving security environment’. They need to be called out, argues Angela Woodward of the Disarmament and Security Centre.
Some embarrassments are most helpfully imparted by a friend: that you’ve got spinach in your teeth, or toilet paper on your shoe, or that your defence posture threatening global nuclear apocalypse under the guise of “nuclear deterrence” has got out of hand.
And so New Zealand must pull aside its long-time friend and Five Eyes partner and explain that increasing one’s nuclear fire power capacity from around 16 megatons to approximately 52 megatons (Hiroshima suffered a mere 15 kiloton nuclear warhead, in comparison) through a £205bn nuclear weapons modernisation programme is going a little too far. After all, just one modern 100 kiloton nuclear weapon detonated over a large city would kill and injure millions of people, utterly overwhelm any medical response, contaminate the environment and disrupt the global climate, resulting in long-term and intolerable harm.
Britain has determined that this increase of up to 220 warheads represents the minimum credible deterrent necessary in the current international security environment. Just six years ago it told the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’ (NPT) 2015 Review Conference that it would only require 180 nuclear warheads by the mid-2020s.
The nuclear posture includes scenarios in which Britain would consider using nuclear weapons beyond the traditional nuclear exchange between nuclear-armed states, to include retaliation to chemical or biological weapon threats, and the undefined “emerging technologies”, presumably cyberattacks and devastating new conventional weapons. Under this new nuclear strategy, non-nuclear weapon states inside the 1968 NPT are now also included in Britain’s nuclear crosshairs if they pose an asymmetrical, non-nuclear threat.
Why must Britain be called out for this?
First, increasing its holding of nuclear warheads is incompatible with its obligation to disarm its nuclear weapons under Article 6 of the NPT. Britain acknowledged at the 2015 NPT conference that its reduction in nuclear warhead numbers at that time was undertaken pursuant to its Article 6 obligations, and that it was committed to a step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament. So an increase in the nuclear arsenal is not contrary to a commitment to disarm? And since when did a step-by-step approach to disarmament involve moving backwards? It’s going to take some diplomatic doublespeak to square that circle at the upcoming NPT Review Conference, likely postponed until early 2022 due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Second, more nuclear weapons create more risks of nuclear weapons accidents or use, including through heightened tension between adversaries and miscalculation – not more security. Let’s not kid ourselves, the absence of nuclear weapons detonations since the second world war has more to do with dumb good luck than “strategic stability”. Nuclear-armed submarines have crashed into each other and suffered catastrophic power failures. Nuclear warheads have been accidentally dropped from aircraft and mistakenly flown between bases without authorisation. Nuclear exchange computer simulations have been mistaken for real-time missile launches nearly leading to retaliatory launches of dozens of nuclear weapons. More nuclear weapons embedded in war-fighting doctrines makes them more susceptible to actually being used. Nuclear deterrence relies on the assumption that they can and would be used under certain circumstances. Is that acceptable, by an ally? That alone is worth a regular ticking off, no matter how many nuclear weapons are in the stockpile.
Third, its nuclear power status has not protected it from aggression, including by other nuclear powers, to date. Remember when Russia poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal with the chemical weapons in Salisbury in 2015, or when Russia poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with radiation in London in 2006, or when Argentina invaded the Falklands/Malvinas islands in 1982? While the UK would not be the only nuclear armed state to claim a right to nuclear retaliation in response to biological or chemical weapons attack, it is difficult to see how this could be done without breaching international humanitarian law requirements for distinction, proportionality and necessity in any use of force. Nuclear power status is also no guarantee against armed attack involving conventional weapons, or attacks involving new technologies or against critical infrastructure. Aren’t resources better applied to more appropriate measures to prevent and respond to actual threats?
So what are nuclear weapons good for? Nuclear deterrence is inherently flawed. If you’re staring down incoming nuclear missiles, then your nuclear deterrence has failed. If you respond in kind, you can celebrate your victory from under the rubble of your radiated cities. Nuclear deterrence distracts attention and much-needed resources from actual threats and challenges. This includes climate change, the impact of Covid-19 and the inevitable pandemics to come and, in Britain’s case, the need to restructure its post-Brexit economy after a decade of financial austerity. Precisely how does a cash-strapped UK intend to pay for its nuclear hubris? Nuclear power status may be a luxury that the it can no longer afford, at least, not without disproportionate trade-offs in the day-to-day wellbeing of its inhabitants.
New Zealand officials and parliamentarians may be muttering expletives at Britain’s bold and diplomatically unpopular announcement but what can New Zealand actually do about it?
Perhaps the most valuable action New Zealand can take doesn’t involve Britain at all. As a long-time moral authority on nuclear disarmament and now, since 22 January 2021, a state party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which bans nuclear weapons under international law, New Zealand should continue its diplomacy to delegitimise the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines and to encourage other states to join the TPNW. Pressure on the nuclear-armed states is growing. The treaty was borne out of the longstanding frustration of the non-nuclear weapon states at the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament. Now 54 states have joined the treaty and 34 others have signed. While the treaty prohibitions do not apply to states that have not joined, the treaty is anticipated to further entrench the taboo against nuclear weapons use and increasingly require nuclear states – and those who support them while ostensibly remaining nuclear-free – to justify their arsenals in the face of growing calls for nuclear disarmament.
Treaty bans on anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions and even chemical and biological weapons created normative pressure that resulted in many possessor states to eventually renounce them and join those treaties. It is not too much to hope for that the TPNW will ultimately contribute to Britain similarly deciding to reduce and then relinquish its nuclear weapons.
Angela Woodward is an international law expert specialising in arms control and disarmament issues. She is a Council member at the Disarmament and Security Centre Aotearoa/New Zealand, based in Christchurch.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.