Great Power Status and Nuclear Weapons: The UK Case

In her first major parliamentary appearance since assuming the role of British Prime Minister, Theresa May recently won a vote to renew Britain’s commitment to nuclear weapons.  The British parliament voted on July 18 to replace Britain’s aging fleet of nuclear-equipped submarines, and this vote is being viewed as an effort to cement the United Kingdom’s status as a major player in international politics in the wake of the recent vote to exit the European Union. May asserted that it was time for the UK to be “stepping up” to meet its responsibilities to NATO and to meet threats to Britain’s security head-on. Given the possibility of increased nuclear threats in the future, “it would be an act of gross irresponsibility to lose the ability to meet such threats by discarding the ultimate insurance against those risks in the future.” The vote to renew the submarine program also highlighted strains within the UK. The Trident force is based in Scotland, but the Scottish population widely opposes the nuclear program and has threatened to hold another referendum on independence in the wake of the Brexit vote. It is not clear where the Trident force would go if the Scots do vote for independence.

The Trident submarines have been Britain’s only nuclear weapons force since 1998, and one is always at sea ready to launch a weapon if necessary. The nuclear-equipped submarine fleet is considered the ultimate nuclear deterrent: capable of staying at sea continuously, they are nearly impossible to detect and track and thus they grant near perfect certainty that one would be able to retaliate against a nuclear attack on one’s homeland. One of May’s first acts as Prime Minister would have been to write a letter outlining the conditions under which the commanders of Trident submarines on patrol would be authorized to retaliate with nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom that rendered the British government unable to make the decision. Every new Prime Minister writes such a letter and it is destroyed when the individual leaves office.

Does the possession of nuclear weapons signify great power status? Maybe it did at one time—back in the Cold War when the US, UK, France, China and Soviet Union were the only states that possessed these weapons. Now, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel also wield these weapons without obvious great-power status. As Ian Jack points out, the UK is largely dependent on help from the United States to construct its Trident submarine force. Why could the UK not simply rely on its American ally to provide a nuclear deterrent, especially given the high cost of building and maintaining this program? Does Britain truly view these weapons as necessary for its survival, or is it about clinging to the United Kingdom’s status as a major player on the international stage? In other words, in the twenty-first century, do nuclear weapons serve any useful strategic purpose or do they function mainly as symbols?