Canon Ian Ellis: Rather than increase its store of nuclear weapons, UK should reduce it and focus on defence systems

We have been living with the possibility of nuclear war for many years, with most people apparently putting the dreadful thought to the back of their minds.

Friday, 2nd April 2021, 1:31 pm
Updated Friday, 2nd April 2021, 1:57 pm
An unarmed Trident II (D5) ballistic missile, during a UK test launch in the Atlantic in 2012. In 2010 the government planned to cut its nuclear warhead stockpile from 225 to 180, the maximum figure is now to increase to 260: Photo: PO(Phot) Lockheed Martin/ MoD Crown Copyright/PA Wire

Trust is placed in the military doctrine of mutual assured destruction (coincidentally, MAD).

Yet the government appears somehow to be able to take any dread in its stride, announcing that the UK’s intended maximum stockpile of nuclear warheads is to be increased by the very significant figure of 44 percent.

In a document released earlier this month, ‘Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, it is stated that while in 2010 the government’s intention was actually to reduce its maximum overall nuclear warhead stockpile from 225 to 180 by the mid-2020s, the maximum figure is now to be increased to 260.

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The harsh reality of it all is bluntly made clear in the document’s declaration that the purpose of this is to maintain “the capability required to impose costs on an adversary that would far outweigh the benefits they could hope to achieve should they threaten our, or our Allies’, security”.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has told the BBC that the move is due to what some other nations have been doing in recent years.

He pointed out that among nuclear armed nations, the UK’s number of the warheads is the lowest, France having a stockpile of 300.

The Defence Secretary also said that Russia has been investing strongly in ballistic missile defence and has planned and deployed new capabilities, adding: “Quite a clear study of effectively how warheads work and how they re-enter the atmosphere means that you have to make sure that they’re not vulnerable to ballistic missile defence, otherwise they no longer become credible.”

From this it seems that at least one of the Ministry of Defence’s concerns is that Russia has developed sophisticated defence systems that the UK must be able to get around.

In fact, in the days of the USSR, one of the reasons for President Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, also known as the ‘Star Wars’ programme, on which some $30 billion was spent, was that the Soviet Union had been developing its own strategic defence programme.

Sophisticated defence mechanisms, by definition, render opponents’ aggressive systems less effective, or actually ineffective.

For that reason it is surely better to counter opponents’ attack capabilities by investing in matching defence systems rather than in yet more lethal weapons.

Yet the recent government document indicates that Russia is not the only threat as some states (the plural is to be noted) “are now significantly increasing and diversifying their nuclear arsenals... They are investing in novel nuclear technologies and developing new ‘warfighting’ nuclear systems”.

Such dystopian calculations are a real part of the security world in which we live every day.

Then again, quite apart from an actual nuclear conflict there is also the danger of an accident of catastrophic proportions occurring, such as when in 1983 the Soviet Union’s early-warning duty officer Stanislav Petrov did not report a clear system alert of a US nuclear attack because he doubted the system the USSR was employing.

He took the chance and simply reported a system malfunction. His hunch was correct, of course, and what he prevented by acting on his instincts is unimaginably horrific.

Thank you, Colonel Petrov.

On March 16, church leaders in Great Britain, joined by the ecumenical grouping Churches Together in Britain and Ireland - of which the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland are full members - issued a statement on the government’s announced intention to increase the maximum number of its nuclear warheads.

The statement declared: “Our Trident submarines already carry warheads that in total have an explosive yield equivalent to hundreds of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima. It is immoral that the UK government is committing resources, which could be spent on the common good of our society, to stockpiling even more.”

Separately, the Church of England’s Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, has lambasted the government’s decision as “inexplicable, illogical, immoral [and] legally unjustifiable”.

The archbishop was alluding to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which the UK is a signatory.

Article 6 of the NPT states: “Each of the Parties to the 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.”

However, it seemed from Mr Wallace’s argument that unless there is the intended potential increase in warheads, the UK’s defence would no longer be credible.

Following the March 23-24 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, the organisation’s general secretary, General Jens Stoltenberg, said that the Allies are seeking to combine “strong deterrence and defence, with openness to dialogue”.

He added that NATO has “a strong and long-standing commitment to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation”.

Pending such disarmament, the aim now should be to shift the emphasis internationally from the development of new warheads to ensuring adequate defence systems.

• Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

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