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Brown Gets ‘Brownie Points’ on Disarmament, Signals Willingness to Cut Britain’s Nuclear Forces

Posted by K.E. White on March 17, 2009

British Prime Minister Gordon BrownSummary: Symbolic, Diplomatic and—most importantly—practical reasons lay behind Brown’s openness to cutting, but not scrapping, Britain’s nuclear forces.

Gordon Brown signaled his openness to cutting Britain’s nuclear forces as part of a multilateral effort at disarmament. In his speech, Checks Against Delivery, sets the stage for an ambitious agenda at 2010 Nonproliferation Treaty Conference: strengthening treaty accountability, reducing fissile material, cutting nuclear armaments and enacting a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In particular, Brown suggested that Britain could keep an effective nuclear deterrent with 12, not 16 missile tubes. And he signaled a general openness to cutting the number of UK nuclear warheads.

While not reversing Britain’s commitment to a nuclear deterrent, this is a considerable shift: just two years ago, Tony Blair—relying on Conservative votes—obtained £20billion to fund new nuclear-armed submarines.

So what’s behind the move? And is it really much of a nuclear shift?

The move has symbolic importance: Britain, a leading proponent of nuclear disarmament has been hampered by its refusal to cut their own deterrent. Such a shift grants Britain a bit more diplomatic heft when criticizing the Iranian nuclear program. Brown might also be trying to pressure Russia and the United States to commit to a meaningful disarmament agreement, perhaps sensing that President Obama could put arms control back on the global agenda.

From Brown’s speech: “I know from President Obama and the new US administration that America shares with us the ultimate ambition of a world free from nuclear weapons.”

From Times On-Line: HMS Vanguard, which was launched in 1992, is one of four British submarines capable of carrying up to 16 Trident ballistic nuclear missiles with up to eight warheads. At least one of the submarines is on patrol at any time.

From Times On-Line: HMS Vanguard, which was launched in 1992, is one of four British submarines capable of carrying up to 16 Trident ballistic nuclear missiles with up to eight warheads. At least one of the submarines is on patrol at any time.

But let’s not forget Brown’s domestic constituency. While the British public supports a British nuclear deterrent, they are soundly against paying to keep it credible.

Sources of Interest

Here’s the Guardian’s report on Brown’s speech. And here’s a PDF of the speech in full.

This 2006 report on the British nuclear force, Worse Than Irrelevant by Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Butler and Stephen Pullinger is worth reading. It seems to be part of Gordon Brown’s playbook and suggests where he might go from here.

And January’s Economist shows—in condensed form—how little bang Britain gets for the nuclear buck:

Plainly, Britain’s military resources do not match its commitments. Three ex-generals have said that Britain’s “unusable” nuclear weapons should be scrapped. But Sir Jock reckons that any money saved would almost certainly go back to the Treasury, not the conventional forces.

On December 11th the government announced a delay of one or two years in building big new aircraft carriers, and the deferral of a new family of armoured vehicles. Even so, insiders say there is still a £3.7 billion ($5.2 billion) hole in the budget for military equipment over the next four years and procurement costs are still rising. The bill for the 20 biggest weapons projects is now £28 billion, or 12%, over budget.

Heavy spending on kit for the navy and air force leaves little for the army; one source says it will receive less than 10% of all spending on defence equipment between 2003 and 2018. The government notes, however, that better-protected transport vehicles and other things are being rushed in separately using the Treasury’s reserve funds; the force in Afghanistan is now the best-equipped that Britain has fielded (though it still trains with old kit).

How much should Britain spend on defence? At around 2.6% of GDP, its defence budget is high by European standards but below America’s 4% (see chart 2). Defence spending has lagged behind other government expenditure (see chart 3). One general says: “You cannot have a first-division army, navy and air force—and a nuclear deterrent—for £34 billion a year.”

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One Response to “Brown Gets ‘Brownie Points’ on Disarmament, Signals Willingness to Cut Britain’s Nuclear Forces”

  1. Cassie said

    Brown’s on the right path. Given Britain’s special relationship with the US, and its standng as a founding NATO nation, I see no reason for it to maintain a nuclear defense. Surely, greater threats to domestic peace are likely to come from within its governing sphere than outside it.

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