Considering UK Disarmament Efforts

After a four month long inquiry, this week the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations published its report that considers the status of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), disarmament efforts and nuclear risk. A timely publication, this report precedes the NPT Preparatory Committee meeting taking place in New York next week. With nuclear risks considered to be increasing, efforts to progress disarmament waning, and concerns over the health of the NPT regime prominent, what disarmament offers can the UK make to improve the nuclear situation? Four key areas have been in the last two decades, at the forefront of UK efforts: nuclear weapons reductions; technical work on disarmament verification; the P5 Process; and transparency.

Since the end of the Cold War, the UK has made a conscious effort to unilaterally reduce its number of operation weapons and stockpile of warheads. From two delivery platforms in the 1990’s – aircraft and submarines – and an estimated stockpile of just over 400 nuclear weapons, the UK has now committed to deploy no more than eight operational nuclear missiles on its SSBNs at any one time, at several days’ notice to fire, and to retain only 120 so-called ‘operationally available’ warheads. This current formation is considered by the UK government to be the minimum requirement for a credible nuclear deterrent.

Given this stance, further reductions to weapons and warhead numbers are unlikely to be on the table for the UK. It is worth noting, however, that some of the major changes to the UK’s nuclear weapons were a result of a change in government in the 1990s, a shift of power from the Conservatives to Labour. Current leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn is well known for his anti-nuclear views, including support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), – otherwise known as the Nuclear Ban Treaty, which is yet to enter into force – which the government has strongly opposed. However, the Labour party has been far from united on its stance towards nuclear weapons. If an early General Election is called as a result of the current turbulence in domestic politics, a change in UK nuclear posture could not be ruled out.

Nuclear disarmament verification is an area in which the UK is generally recognised as a leader. The House of Lords inquiry acknowledged that many of those who gave evidence noted that the UK’s technical work is welcomed and valuable. The UK’s work in this space is broad, with the bilateral UK-Norway Initiative, quadrilateral work with the US, Sweden and Norway, bilateral work with the US, and participation in the International Partnership for Disarmament Verification (IPNDV). The UK has claimed that this work is necessary to ensure that, when the political conditions are ripe for progress on disarmament, some of the technical groundwork will have already been laid.

There is precedent for this approach: the development of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) benefitted from the progression of scientific and technical cooperation on verification issues, even when the political negotiations for the treaty had stalled. Given that one of the main criticisms of the TPNW has been the lack of attention it devotes to non-proliferation and disarmament verification mechanisms, this work is vital. Procedures and technologies that allow for all states to be able to trust and verify that the nuclear weapons states are honestly dismantling nuclear weapons will be key components of getting to and maintaining global zero. Not only is this work something that will likely heavily feature in the UK’s NPT engagements, but should continue to be at the forefront of disarmament efforts.

In an attempt to develop the international context that would allow for the political developments to compliment the technical, the UK established the P5 Process in 2008, with the first meeting held in 2009. As former Secretary of State for Defence Lord Browne laid out in his evidence to the House of Lords International Relations Committee, the driving idea behind this was to create a forum in which China, France, Russia, the UK and the US could engage in genuine dialogue designed to further their shared treaty obligations. Despite the well-intentioned effort, the P5 Process was subsequently critiqued for being too opaque and exclusive. This is poignantly highlighted by Lord Browne’s further comment to the Lords, in which he stated “I thought I was creating a dynamic for disarmament and peace, and what I created was a cartel – a group of Nuclear-Weapons States that in many other ways could not bear the sight of each other, but when it came to the common ownership of nuclear weapons were very good at articulating an argument as to why they needed nuclear weapons only because the rest of the world did not behave itself well enough”.

Despite yearly meetings between 2009 and 2016, the P5 Process was relatively fruitless. Its core areas of work were: to develop a glossary of nuclear terms (to ensure common understanding and establish definitions); to enhance transparency, for example in relation to weapons capabilities and plans, through common reporting measures; and to multi-lateralise verification work, which until this point had been bilateral. The NPT Non Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) have, however, called for more actionable outcomes and transparency from this process. The challenges in delivering substantive outcomes, and a general deterioration in international relations, resulted in the Process stagnating. P5 meetings have however been reinstated as of this year, with the first taking place in January in Beijing. China has been chairing the renewed process up until now, but, following the Preparatory Committee meeting next week, the UK will take over until the 2020 Review Conference.

Reinvigorating the P5 Process is a positive step, but alone will not be sufficient. To avoid worsening the perception that the P5 is a ‘cartel’, and constructively contribute to addressing the challenges of the NPT process, transparency, inward and outward, must be at the heart of the forum. Inward transparency between the NWS could ensure a better understanding of each other’s nuclear policies, reducing risks of miscalculation and misperception, and would explore areas for progress that might improve the political conditions for further disarmament. Outward transparency would involve the NWS effectively communicating with the NNWS the activities of the P5 Process, its successes, its challenges, and its opportunities. The UK has already taken a lead on this and will be submitting a draft national report for the Preparatory Committee, to solicit feedback and dialogue ahead of its final report in 2020.

The international nuclear architecture, underpinned by the NPT, needs energetic support right now. The House of Lords inquiry report provides a comprehensive review of the current situation. The report reiterates that the NPT is of great importance to the UK, and demonstrates a broad consensus that the UK should continue to be at the forefront of ensuring its success. Although further reductions in the UK’s nuclear stockpile seem improbable under the current government, the UK can improve the health of the NPT in other ways. Whilst this will not be an easy task, disarmament verification work, engagement between the NWS and NWS and NNWS, and enhanced transparency can be tools that move the NPT community out of its present malaise and into a healthier and more positive time.


Cristina Varriale

Associate Fellow

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