Britain: The First Ex-Nuclear Power?
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Io n July 15, 1980 Mr. Francis Pym, British Secretary of State for Defense, announced that the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) had been chosen to succeed the Polaris SLBM as the foundation of Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent. Four, and possibly five, new submarines were to be built at a cost of f4.5-5 billion to enter service in the early 1990s. The announcement was not a surprise, having been anticipated in press stories since the previous November. Despite the publication of a remarkably full document explaining the decision,’ there was nothing resembling the “great debate” that the Government had expected and claimed to want. There was some interest in the manner of the decision-making, in which the formalities of cabinet government and alliance consultation had to be somewhat rushed due to the story already having been leaked in the United States.2The response to the choice of Trident ranged from mild enthusiasm to mild hostility and was generally muted. A year after the announcement, large question marks have suddenly appeared beside the Trident project. This is not because of anything that has happened with the project itself, although costs are already starting to creep up, or because of any change in the Government’s attitude. In part it is because Britain’s Labour Opposition, and also the Liberal and Social Democratic parties, have come out firmly against Trident. More importantly it is because the persistent weakness in the British economy is being felt in the Lawrence Freedman is Head of Policy Studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Among other publications, he is the author of Britain and Nuclear Weapons (1980)and the forthcoming Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, both published by Macmillan in London. 1. The Future of the United Kingdom Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Force, Defense Open Government Document 80/23 (London: Ministry of Defense, July 1980). 2. The announcement was due to be made on Thursday, July 7 ,but early on the preceding Tuesday morning senior officials were raised from their beds with the news that the story was about to break in The New York Times. With an enormous effort, the Whitehall machine managed to gain approval (often only by telephone) of Cabinet Ministers who had not been involved in the decision-making(and who were to have been told at the Thursday’s cabinet meeting), send off telegrams to other NATO leaders, get printed the White Paper and explanatory memorandum , alert the press, and prepare Mr. Pym for a three o’clock Parliamentary announcement. The irony of this episode was that The New York Times decided not to print the story. International Security, Fall 1981 (Vol. 6 ,No.2)0162-2889/81/020080-25 $02.50/0 @ 1981by the Presidentand Fellows of Harvard College and the MassachusettsInstituteof Technology. 80 Britain an Ex-Nuclear Power? I 81 Ministry of Defense, where Trident is increasinglybeing blamed for a squeeze on the three services, particularly the Royal Navy. Rejected by the main opposition parties, resented by the military and with slight support in the opinion polls, Trident is now looking remarkably friendless. For the moment Trident has the only friend it needs-the Government of the day. But this may not last past the general election of late 1983/early 1984,when this friend too may be lost. Why Trident has become so politically vulnerable, and what factors will influence its future are the concerns of this essay. Britain’s Nuclear Forces Britain’s nuclear status does not depend solely on its strategic nuclear force. In addition to the four Polaris submarines there are 56 Vulcan aircraft. These provided Britain’s deterrent prior to the introduction of Polaris and are due to be phased out over the next couple of years.3These have been considered to be part of NATO’s long-range theater nuclear forces (LRTNF), but there is no British contribution to the modernization program agreed by the Alliance in December 1979. There was at one time an interest in replacing the Vulcans with a small British arsenal of the Tomahawk ground-launched cruise missiles that are to be based in the country anyway by the United States under the NATO program...


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