Increasing Nukes And Trimming The Military: Global Britain’s Skewed Vision

Credit: Original article can be found here

Campaigners for the abolition of nuclear weapons had
every reason to clink glasses with the coming into force of
the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in January.
Nuclear weapon states and their allies still persisted in
calling the document unhelpful and unrealistic; the
self-appointed realists have preferred the go-slow approach
of disarmament, a form of moderated insanity.

March, it became clear that the United Kingdom, one of the
opponents of the TPNW, had decided not only to look the
other way but walk in the opposite direction. The threshold
of British nuclear warheads is to be increased to 260,
though the authorities maintain an intentional ambiguity
about the exact number. This reverses a decision arrived at
a decade ago, which promised to cut the maximum threshold
for nuclear warheads from 225 to 180 by the middle of this
decade. In the words of the Defence Command Paper of the
Ministry of Defence, titled Defence
in a Competitive Age
, “Some nuclear-armed states
are increasing and diversifying their arsenals, while
increases in global competition, challenges to the
multilateral order, and proliferation of potentially
disruptive technologies all pose a threat to strategic

Such a direction is very much at odds
with public support for Britain joining the TPNW. A poll
conducted in January for the Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament found that 59% of the public expressed support
for signing the treaty, including 50% of conservative voters
and 68% of Labour voters. The policy also breaches
undertakings made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
to pursue efforts to disarm. Beatrice Fihn, Executive
Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear
Weapons, decried
the decision as “toxic masculinity on display”,
“irresponsible, dangerous and violates international
law.” UNA-UK’s Head of Campaigns Ben Donaldson remarked
that the UK government could best “invest in measures to
combat climate change and pandemics, not trigger a dangerous
new arms race.”

The push towards more nukes would
seem to be a compensation for reducing numbers in other
areas of defence. While the nuclear arsenal is slated to
increase, the number of soldiers in service will decline:
from the current target of 82,040 to 72,500 in 2025. (Even
here, a bit of make-believe is taking hold, given that the
Army currently
has 76,350 soldiers in service.) Effectively, Britain wants
to roar with less, all part of what Defence Secretary Ben
Wallace calls
“increased deployability and technological

The justifications for doing so,
outlined in the Defence Command Paper, are the immemorial
ones: new threats, new security environments, and a
topsy-turvy world. “The notion of war and peace as binary
states,” writes
Wallace in the paper’s foreword, “has given way to a
continuum of conflict, requiring us to prepare our forces
for more persistent global engagement and constant
campaigning, moving seamlessly from operating to war

The review identifies “four overarching
trends” of concern for the UK: the growing importance of
the Indo-Pacific, China’s assertiveness and “the
influence of middle powers”; systemic inter-state
competition, including between governments with
“democratic and authoritarian values”; the challenge of
technology, beneficial “but also becoming an arena of
intensifying geopolitical competition”; and various
transnational challenges requiring “collective action,
such as climate change, biosecurity risks, terrorism and
serious and organised crime.”

This sounds much an
ominous promise to commit Britain to a state of affairs
reminiscent of that most absurd of US policies: the waging
of permanent war for permanent peace. But Wallace wishes to
be farsighted, urging the dinosaurs to move over and forget
“the shield of sentimentality to protect previously
battle-winning but now outdated capabilities.”

theatre for this commitment will not just be the
conventional ones centred on the NATO alliance. Officially,
Britain is again looking east of Suez, with an eye to
drawing in old allies. “Our partnerships with Canada,
Australia and New Zealand will be at the heart of our tilt
towards the Indo-Pacific, as we work to support them to
tackle the security challenges in the region.” Central to
the “tilt” will be the maritime partnership with India.
The object of the exercise is clear enough. “The rising
power of China is by far the most significant geopolitical
factor in the world today.” Britain had “to be prepared
to push back to protect our values and global interests,
while maintaining our ability to cooperate in tackling
global challenges such as climate change and the mutual
benefits of our economic relationship.”

The way this
Global Britain vision is going to be achieved is a novel
one. Fewer personnel will have fewer tanks (reduced from 226
to 148 upgraded versions). The RAF will oversee the
retirement of its older Typhoons (“equipment that has
increasingly limited utility in the digital and future
operating environment”) and Hercules transport aircraft.
The Navy will also farewell its share: two of the oldest T23
frigates. “We will bring Type 31 and Type 32 frigates into
service, these new vessels are not just replacements for
existing platforms, they will be more flexible than their

The defence paper abounds in the
terms of an accountant gone wild, intoxicated by notions of
bottom lines and efficiencies. Fleets are to be rationalised
or retired; capabilities must be increased; the stress must
be on the digital. But on the subject of nuclear weapons,
Global Britain’s eyes remain very much focused on the
past, shackled to the notion that a greater number of nukes
somehow guarantee security. A certifiably barbaric relic of

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth
Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT
University, Melbourne. Email:

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