By Matthew Fargo
A mixture of geography and nationalism has set the stage in the United Kingdom for a referendum in 2014 that will ask voters a straightforward question with complex consequences: Should Scotland be an independent nation?
A complicating factor for the referendum is that while the United Kingdom is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a recognized nuclear weapon state in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the strategic nuclear weapons forces which it possesses are all located on submarines based in Scotland. The majority party in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National Party, has declared that if they achieve independence in 2014, they would call for the unilateral removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland.
British nuclear forces are comprised solely of four Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines, each armed with up to sixteen Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles. With ten warheads on each missile and a single Vanguard submarine deployed at a time, the United Kingdom maintains 160 operational warheads, and has declared that it will not exceed a maximum of 225 operational warheads at a given time.
The possibility of Scottish independence brings into serious question the future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent. According to William Walker, there is no other existing submarine base in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland that would be able to host the United Kingdom’s Vanguard ballistic missile submarines. As the referendum nears and it becomes clearer whether it is likely to pass, there will undoubtedly be a more vigorous search for other basing alternatives within the U.K. Ministry of Defense and Parliament.
It has also been reported that an independent Scotland would find it difficult to field much in the way of a modern military force on par with countries of approximately the same size in Europe. Although the Scottish National Party has opposed the membership of an independent Scotland in NATO for years, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond maychange course in order to ensure the future security of Scotland. Defense experts in the U.K. have speculated that Scotland would be unable to bar British nuclear submarines from its bases if it expects to become a full member of NATO.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom continues to debate the wisdom of building new ballistic missile submarines at an estimated cost of £25 billion ($39.6 billion). The British American Security Information Council established an independent commission to examine the future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear forces and found that the elimination of Trident from the military budget would save approximately £1.6 billion ($2.5 billion) annually for the next fifty years.
Although studies have been conducted into potential alternatives, Defense Secretary Liam Fox announced in 2011 that plans to begin a “like for like” replacement of the existing ballistic submarine force are already underway but the final decision will not be made until 2014.
The United Kingdom’s maintenance of continuous at-sea deterrence has existed since the 1960s, but alternativessuch as creating a dual-use submarine force to replace the aging Trident system or maintaining a far cheaper non-deployed strategic force have been suggested. However, there is an even better solution – British nuclear disarmament.
The future of the United Kingdom’s strategic forces has been debated in Parliament in the past. Some Members of Parliament have declared that nuclear weapons “serve no useful or practical purpose” defending the United Kingdom from “the most pressing threat currently facing the U.K.” – terrorism. Furthermore, although the United Kingdom envisions its strategic forces as an independent nuclear deterrent, it continues to rely on the United States for technical support and cooperation. Defense Secretary Fox has insisted that, “Policy remains that a minimum nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile delivery system and continuous at-sea deterrence is right for the U.K.” In his autobiography, former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote that, “In the final analysis, I thought giving [Trident] up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation, and in an uncertain world, too big a risk for our defense.”
British disarmament would also divorce the power and prestige of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council from the possession of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the United Kingdom would be the first Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognized nuclear weapons state to fulfill its NPT Article VI obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith…to nuclear disarmament”.
Although this would only be a small step toward total global nuclear disarmament, it could serve as an important example for moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons cannot rebuild ailing economies, cannot bridge cultural divides, cannot defend against terrorism, and no longer serve the national interests of the United Kingdom.
Let Trident rust in peace.