The conclusions of the IR also reflect the importance that the UK attaches to maintaining credible sub-strategic nuclear options. Unlike France, the UK has no nuclear-armed bomber aircraft. It therefore has fewer options for nuclear signalling during a crisis. When it gave up its air leg in 1998, however, the MoD made clear that its Trident force was capable of "retaining an option for a limited strike that would not automatically lead to a full scale nuclear exchange". This remains the case. Unlike France, the UK has not limited its flexibility in this regard by committing to a "unique and one-time-only nuclear warning". The Government has made clear that it sees no role for nuclear weapons in a tactical role. But it does see value in maintaining ambiguity as to whether and how it might consider escalation, including after a first exchange of warning shots. Increased Russian interest in its own sub-strategic options, together with the deployment of new INF-range missiles capable of reaching much of NATO Europe, have been added factors in the UK's reappraisal.
The dual requirement for maintaining credible strategic and sub-strategic forces, in the face of plausible improvements in Russian defensive capabilities, helps explain why the MoD has now reversed the 2010 decisions on transparency on deployed warhead and missile numbers. Even if an opponent in a crisis would be unlikely to take unverifiable declarations at face value, they do limit the flexibility which UK forces can exercise in planning and deploying the force in peacetime. As a result of this change, the Royal Navy can now vary the loadings of submarines without public notice, increasing the uncertainty that faces a potential adversary.
Beyond the Integrated Review
While the main force driver for the UK deterrent remains a potential threat from Russia, it could also be relevant to future threats from other states, for example from the Middle East. In some scenarios, China might also one day become a more significant driver of the UK's nuclear capabilities and deployments. But that is an issue for a future Review.
There has not been any suggestion that the UK should re-invest in an air-based component to its deterrent force. Although it is the only nuclear-armed state with a single delivery system, the UK's nuclear planners have enough on their plate to sustain a credible submarine-based force.
The Polaris ballistic missile system purchased from the US in the 1960s proved to be a remarkable bargain. Since that period, however, the nuclear force has taken a growing share of a total defense budget which, for much of the period, has been relatively stagnant in real terms. Over the last decade, substantial new resources have had to be spent on recapitalizing the nuclear warhead complex, as well as on the development of a new generation of submarines. Even before the Integrated Review, ten-year projections showed some 25% of total equipment spending being devoted to nuclear and submarine capabilities. The IR is likely to have increased this proportion, with confirmation of the plan for a new warhead, increased costs associated with keeping the existing submarines in service, as well as growing costs for the new class of Dreadnought submarines. Whatever it costs, however, any future government is likely to prioritize the maintenance of a credible nuclear deterrent force, if necessary at the expense of conventional capabilities.
The Alliance Dimension
The UK has always assigned its entire nuclear capability to NATO’s collective efforts, as well as maintaining an active membership in the alliance’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). In addition, the IR has signalled an increased policy focus on the UK’s support for NATO’s other nuclear missions.
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