The United Kingdom plans to violate the NPT
The UK Government announced on 16 March that it will massively increase its nuclear arsenal and thus its military ability to obliterate cities around the world. The plan constitutes a clear violation of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the NPT), and the UK’s allies within and outside NATO should move quickly to condemn it.
Honorary Professor, University of Pretoria
Contributor to the Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor
Billions will be dedicated to increasing the UK’s nuclear arsenal by 40 per cent to 260 warheads, its largest and swiftest increase since the 1960s. The aggregate explosive power of the weapons will amount to some 26 megatons, with a potential to exterminate tens of millions of people in an instant. To put that into perspective, the TNT yield of the new arsenal will be 650 million times that of the most powerful conventional bomb held by the United States and equate to the force of some 17,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
Billions will be dedicated to increasing the UK’s nuclear arsenal by 40 per cent to 260 warheads.
The UK’s stockpile of nuclear weapons peaked at about 500 warheads in the late 1970s. Successive British governments have sought to sustain the argument that, as a “responsible” nuclear-weapon State and a party to the NPT, since the end of the Cold War they have been reducing the number of nuclear warheads they possess and deploy. On that basis, so the argument goes, the UK is in compliance with its international legal obligations under the Treaty. The announcement in this week’s government review of defence and foreign policy that the UK will increase very significantly its nuclear arsenal blows those claims out of the water.
The 2015 Strategic Defence Review committed the UK to reduce its overall nuclear weapon stockpile to “no more than 180 warheads” by the mid 2020s and its operationally available warheads to 120. As recently as 2018, the UK was boasting that it had, since 2010, reduced warheads on each submarine from 48 to 40 and the number of operational missiles on each to not more than 8. It remained, it said, committed to achieving the long-term reduction in the overall nuclear weapon stockpile. This was evidence, the Ministry of Defence stated, of the UK’s “leading role in multilateral nuclear disarmament”.
To date, only pariah State North Korea has engaged in explosive nuclear testing in the twenty-first century.
The NPT demands that the five designated nuclear-weapon States, which include the UK, negotiate “in good faith” to end the nuclear arms race and achieve nuclear disarmament. The decision announced this week—without prior discussion in Parliament—contravenes both of those obligations. Moreover, there appears to be no military justification. Instead, it represents a thinly disguised attempt to encourage the United States to commit to develop a new warhead for the Trident missile, the W93. The UK claims that it intends to develop a new warhead but, more accurately, it wishes to procure the design from the United States. Last year, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, sent an astonishing letter to Congress in which he urged the US legislature to support initial spending on the W93. There are even fears that, were President Biden to authorise its development, the new warhead will demand explosive testing in later years before being deployed. To date, only pariah State North Korea has engaged in explosive nuclear testing in the twenty-first century.
If the United States does go ahead to develop the W93, and if it shares its warhead design with the UK, it will also be itself violating the NPT. Article I of the Treaty—the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, let’s not forget—commits each nuclear-weapon State Party (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US) “not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons”.
More warheads, more treaty violations.
So more warheads, more treaty violations. As the famed US General Omar Bradley said on Armistice Day, 1948: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” But let us hope that both nations come to their senses and, for the first time in decades, agree instead to initiate multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. No one wins a nuclear war and no one wins a nuclear arms race.