A new report by the Nuclear Information Service (NIS) said the UK government’s decision to develop a new nuclear warhead, increase warhead numbers and broaden the circumstances for its use, appears to be a political one based  on a desire not to be ‘apologetic’ for Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons. 

Extreme Circumstances: The UK’s new nuclear warhead in context , gathered all the available information on the UK’s replacement warhead programme, in an attempt to understand why the multi-billion pound upgrade is going ahead and what the system’s likely characteristics are. It also looked at its symbiotic relationship with the US’s parallel programme to develop the US W93 warhead. 

It found that the two main factors in Washington’s decision to develop the W93 was a desire to revitalise the US industrial base and to have a third submarine-launched nuclear warhead design “in case of a technical problem with one of the two current designs.” 

While Britain’s nuclear stockpile is the smallest of the NPT-recognised nuclear weapons states, the 2021 Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy marked a “reversal of a decades-long trend of reductions in the UK nuclear stockpile.” 

The report noted that: “Instead of the planned reduction of the stockpile ceiling from 225 to 180 by the mid 2020s, it was increased to 260. The IR also reversed the policy of providing information about the numbers of operational warheads and the number of deployed warheads and submarines.” As a result, Britain is in breach of several of its nuclear warhead reduction commitments outlined in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). 

Political decisions over technical factors

The report concludes that both US and UK government decisions to replace their nuclear weapons are based on “internal pressure” to keep and maintain the current nuclear infrastructure. In Britain, the final decision on the warheads by the Prime Minister “appears to have been guided by a desire for the UK to be less ‘apologetic’ about its continued possession of nuclear weapons.” This, in addition to the decision to increase its nuclear arsenal, is leading to a further weakening in the credibility of the NPT regime, and a move away from transparency and accountability. 

CND General Secretary Kate Hudson, said the report made clear that Britain wasn’t keeping to its disarmament commitments: “The  conclusions outlined in this report make clear that decades of gradual nuclear arsenal reductions are being abandoned. We back the report’s call for the UK government to withdraw its policy of strategic ambiguity, and to allow for greater public and political scrutiny of its nuclear weapons programme. It’s time to stop this waste of vital public funds and to pursue a defence policy that works for genuine security for all.”