The British bomb and NATO: Putting Scotland on the front line in any conflict with North Korea

By Dr Ian Davis, Director, NATO Watch

Last Friday (29 September), the UK Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon hosted NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the 29 ambassadors of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) at Clyde Naval Base (Faslane) on the west coast of Scotland to mark the 350th Trident patrol. The meeting was taking place ahead of the start of the Joint Warrior exercise in Scotland, one of NATO's largest annual military drills, and during an international missile defence exercise, Formidable Shield.

While the United States provides the main nuclear weapon capability within NATO, the UK’s nuclear weapons have also been pledged to the defence of the alliance since the late 1950s. The exact nature of that contribution has become increasingly obscure since the end of the Cold War, and now the Defence Secretary's comments raise the alarming prospect of Royal Navy nuclear-armed submarines being used to back the United States against North Korea. How they might do this, short of launching a nuclear weapon on the country is unclear.

North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities, including a sixth underground test that some analysts interpret as a probably two-stage thermonuclear explosion and a long-range ballistic missile launch over Japan, has been almost universally condemned as posing a severe threat to international peace and security. NATO is not directly involved in the nuclear crisis, but has repeatedly called on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. NATO’s Secretary General said on 9 September that North Korea’s nuclear programme requires a global response but refused to say whether an attack on Guam would trigger the alliance’s collective defence provision.

Speaking after the visit aboard HMS Vengeance, one of the Royal Navy’s four Vanguard-class submarines, Stoltenberg said, “these are among the most complex and impressive capabilities in NATO”, adding “in an uncertain world nuclear deterrence remains critical to our security. At the same time, NATO remains committed to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in line with our commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)”. But how can those conditions be created when even the most powerful military alliance on the planet—with military spending over 12 times more than Russia in 2016—is unable to look beyond nuclear weapons for its security, is unwilling to give unconditional guarantees not to use nuclear weapons against states without them, nor to give a no-first use pledge?

This highlighting of NATO’s nuclear capabilities should be seen not only in the context of North Korean nuclear tests and overhyped Russian military drills, but as part of an attempt to shore up waning support for so-called ‘nuclear deterrence’—a complex and controversial theory that relies upon understanding the motives of potential nuclear-armed adversaries—among Western publics. As a recent NATO Defence College report acknowledges, the nuclear deterrence community in Brussels and in many other European and Northeast Asian capitals is losing or has lost the debate for public support.

NATO is clearly rattled by the adoption in July of a new global treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Because of NATO’s reliance on nuclear deterrence all but one of its member states failed to participate in the UN discussions that led to the treaty. The US pressed other NATO member states and partners to boycott the discussions, and after the UN treaty was adopted has continued to lean on partners, like Sweden, which supported the ban treaty in July (with some reservations) and is now contemplating whether to sign it. In a Press Release on 20 September, NATO denounced the Treaty as unrealistic and claimed that it risked undermining the international response to North Korea's nuclear arms programme. The NATO statement was timed to coincide with the opening day to the treaty, at which 51 countries signed. The Treaty will enter into force 90 days after 50 states have ratified the treaty; 3 of the 51 signatories have so far done so, although it is expected to take a few years before the full 50 ratify.

Instead of disarming all the nine nuclear-armed states are updating their arsenals. Within NATO, the UK is building four new ballistic submarines—the Dreadnought class—which will be ready by the early 2030s, and around £1.3bn has been earmarked to upgrade the facilities at Faslane.

The US nuclear modernization programme is even more ambitious. The US tested the ‘non-nuclear functions’ of its newest nuclear weapon, the B61-12 gravity bomb, from an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter aircraft in August. The modified bombs are due to replace the US-owned earlier variants of the nuclear B61 bombs stationed in Europe. Later the same month, the US Air Force announced major new contracts for an overhaul of the US nuclear weapon force: $1.8 billion for initial development of a highly stealthy nuclear cruise missile, and nearly $700 million to begin replacing the 40-year-old Minuteman missiles in silos across the United States. In addition, the Trump administration's Nuclear Posture Review is reportedly examining the idea of building smaller yield tactical nuclear weapons.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said that Britain should sign the nuclear ban treaty and it was not surprising therefore for Michael Fallon to also use the platform of the NATO visit to debunk such thinking. “Signing up to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons would be irresponsible. It would lead to 'future Kims' in a world where one alone is already dramatically undermining the very tenets of international security”, he said.

But simply clinging on to nuclear deterrence when the evidence suggests that it is faltering and where support is dwindling is a high-risk strategy, politically and strategically. Uk Prime Minister Theresa May’s declaration that she would authorise a nuclear strike seemed to go one step further than her predecessors, who preferred a position of ambiguity. Of course, it is seen as critical to the credibility of deterrence theory for leaders to signal their willingness to contemplate such an action. But actually firing nuclear weapons—either as a first strike or in retaliation for a nuclear attack—would as Lt. Commander Chisholm, an engineer on board the UK nuclear-armed submarines, said in an interview, “if it comes that far we have failed”. Such a failure would be catastrophic, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians from the immediate, devastating impact of a nuclear weapon, followed by radioactive fallout, contamination and environmental devastation. There would also likely be far-reaching regional and global impacts on food, water and economic resources.

Is it the UK Government and NATO, therefore, that are acting irresponsibly in undermining attempts to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons?