Vertical Proliferation

UK: Vertical Proliferation in context

April 2004

Kate Hudson

The likelihood of vertical proliferation is one of the greatest challenges facing the peace movement today. New nuclear weapons have certainly been on the US nuclear agenda since at least the mid-1990s, but there can be no doubt that under the Bush administration this orientation has been consolidated and accelerated. Whilst the talk amongst nuclear planners in the 1990s was of countering regional threats and ‘rogue states’, the US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of January 2002 clarified the extent of the new nuclear ambitions. Setting out the direction of US forces for the next 5-10 years, the NPR outlined a major change of approach, establishing a New Triad of offensive strike systems – both nuclear and non-nuclear, active and passive defences, and a revitalised defence infrastructure “to provide new capabilities in a timely fashion to meet emerging threats.”1 Clearly, the NPR consolidates the concept of the offensive strike system and reinforces the policy of nuclear first use. It also encompasses the development of new nuclear weapons.

Taken together with the US Department of Defense’s document Joint Vision 2020, issued in May 2000, outlining how the US will achieve full spectrum military dominance on land, sea, air, and space, an alarming scenario confronts us. Joint Vision 2020 addresses full spectrum dominance across a range of conflicts, including nuclear war. The US missile defence programme is clearly a facet of this, already bringing the beginnings of a new nuclear arms race as states seek ways to penetrate the Star Wars ‘shield’.

If one was in any doubt about the overarching nature of the US administration’s vision with regard to military policy, one only needs to visit the website of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).2 Established in spring 1997, PNAC is supposedly a non-profit educational organisation whose goal is to promote US global leadership. Actually it is a neo-conservative think-tank with Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz among its founders, which argues that US global leadership is good for both the US and the world, and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy, and commitment to moral principle. It specifically harks back to what it terms “the Reagan administration’s success,” including a military “that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges.”3 Indeed, the origins of the project date back to the early 1990s when Defense Secretary Cheney was setting out his “peace through strength” policy.

In this context, the NPR is alarming, generally for world peace and specifically for nuclear non-proliferation. As stated in the document Bunker Busters published by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), “Of all the international regimes to be affected by the NPR, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) may suffer the greatest blow. While the Bush administration professes to uphold the broad structure of the NPT, its plans contradict some of the 13 steps to advance the treaty agreed by all states parties in May 2000. Ongoing attempts to develop new, more usable nuclear weapons, and a refusal to rule out their use against non-nuclear states, raises serious doubts about Washington’s commitment to ensure ‘a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies.’”4

The concept of non-proliferation, as enshrined in the NPT, encompasses both horizontal and vertical proliferation, yet that very concept is under threat from the drive by the US and UK towards a policy of counter-proliferation, rather than non-proliferation. Described by Fiona Simpson as “a paradigm shift,”5 counter-proliferation concentrates entirely on the prevention of horizontal proliferation and, as such, counter-proliferation policies clearly undermine the NPT framework. They also further undermine the multilateral non-proliferation regime through its possible substitution – as in the case of Iraq – by pre-emptive disarmament wars, carried out by a tiny minority of the international community. Missile defence is clearly part of the counter-proliferation approach, for it enables first strike without fear of retaliation.

The role of the UK

The role of the UK in these developments is a significant one, not just because of the UK government’s backing for the Iraq war, but because some disturbing policy changes have been taking place. Prime Minister Tony Blair has begun to shift the terrain toward changes in international law to legitimise pre-emptive war – a very relevant development in this context because of the likely role for new nuclear weapons designed actually to be used in a first strike capacity in future pre-emptive wars. The speech Blair gave in his own parliamentary constituency of Sedgefield in March 2004 was extremely significant, not so much because he tried to switch the justification for the war from the threat of weapons of mass destruction to Iraq’s non-compliance with UN resolutions, but because he made a fundamental attack on international law, with regard to the legitimisation of pre-emptive war. Blair said that he was reaching for a different philosophy of international relations, breaking with the traditional notion that you did not interfere in a country unless it threatened you.6

In saying this, Blair was reverting to the notion of intervention in a country on humanitarian grounds, which was raised at the time of the illegal war against Yugoslavia in 1999. After that war he called for “a doctrine of international community, where in certain clear circumstances, we do intervene, even though we are not directly threatened.”7 Given the nature of many regimes around the world, this approach is one that has some resonance, and it has been followed by the arguments from Labour MPs Clive Soley and Ann Clwyd, that international law must be reframed to put human rights over state sovereignty in extreme cases – where “regime change is not just politically justified but morally necessary.”8 The campaign to shift hearts and minds on this issue has clearly started.

But we should not allow the pseudo-philosophical veneer to obscure the real issue. In the war on Iraq, Bush and Blair did not have law on their side; the majority of the international community opposed it; the majority of the UN Security Council opposed it; NATO and the European Union were split over it; the majority of the world’s population opposed it. People were just not convinced the war on Iraq was the right way to deal with the complex problems facing the world. Bush and Blair should have accepted that message and looked for a different approach. That would have been a real doctrine of international community – to listen to the views of the majority of the world’s peoples and nations, not drive ahead disregarding others and then try and change the rules to ensure that in future international law is not an obstacle because it has been rewritten to suit one’s own purposes. It is not even the case that the status quo of international law should automatically be defended in perpetuity. If the international community wants to change it then it should – but it must be the whole community, not just two or three of the world’s most powerful nations who want to impose their will. Those laws exist to protect smaller nations and that framework must not be adjusted without adequate defence of all nations’ rights to self-determination. We must have protection of human rights throughout the world, but that cannot be used as a means to enshrine in law the right of the powerful to intervene anywhere in the world that they choose.

Nuclear modernisation in the UK

The UK government is, however, in a weak position to claim the moral high ground on these issues for it has subscribed to the whole increasingly alarming US foreign and military policy framework of the last few years. As outlined above, it is clear that the 2002 US Nuclear Posture Review has raised serious concerns about the US’ plans to develop new nuclear weapons designed actually to be used in pre-emptive wars. Yet it is also clear that British policy seems to have moved in the same direction. As Jane’s Intelligence Digest observed in August 2003, the UK’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review clearly stated that nuclear weapons would not be used against a non-nuclear weapons state not in material breach of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations unless it were to attack the UK – the so-called negative security assurances. In March 2002, Geoff Hoon “came strikingly close to the US position…[he] revealed a major change in UK thinking: that if British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons, the Blair government reserved the right to use nuclear weapons.”9 Clearly that constitutes a significant lowering of the nuclear use threshold.

Furthermore, Jane’s also reports on Britain’s cooperative programmes with all major US nuclear weapons laboratories and the massive government investment in the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston in Berkshire. In their assessment, there is an apparent radical shift in Britain’s nuclear doctrine, and this includes a greater variety of nuclear weapons. These developments are not ones which inspire confidence in the motivations behind the new philosophical rhetoric of Blair. On the contrary, we must resist the rewriting of international law where it is designed to legitimise unilateral aggression, and we must campaign vigorously against government policies which sanction nuclear first strike and the development of new nuclear weapons clearly designed to be used in pre-emptive wars.

As a result of the current developments, AWE Aldermaston is becoming a central focus for peace campaigners in Britain today. AWE Aldermaston, established in 1950, is responsible for most of Britain’s nuclear research activities, as well as developing weapons designs and producing most nuclear weapon components.10 Indeed, it is the home of Trident warhead production, maintenance, research, and development. According to activists, it is currently equipping itself to build new nuclear weapons and a new range of site facilities are planned at a huge cost of around £2 billion: “This could enable AWE to build a replacement for the Trident warhead system, or to build lower yield ‘mini-nukes’ or battlefield nuclear weapons.”11 The Site Development Strategy Plan, published in August 2002, included “new supercomputers, a high powered laser, hydrodynamic testing facilities and non-specific ‘laboratories.’”12 In May 2003 the New Scientist magazine announced that AWE were intending to recruit more than 80 specialist scientists, but according to Jane’s the planned expansion includes 300 new scientists.13

A central feature of the new developments is the provision of testing facilities for a new warhead design. Central to the plans has been a massive new laser plant, Orion, which could be used in the simulated testing of nuclear weapons. Orion would replace the current Ministry of Defence (MoD) laser, HELEN, which has a 1 terawatt (million million watt) capacity, which despite its massive power – probably generating up to three million degrees centigrade is not strong enough to “generate the temperatures and pressures experienced within a nuclear warhead.”14 The UK government position is that by better simulating the conditions, the vastly stronger Orion will ensure the reliability of the UK’s Trident warheads without resort to physical test explosions, but analysts agree, says the UK Nuclear Free Local Authorities organisation, that Orion, “would create the ability to test design and build not only a strategic successor to Trident, but also a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons or ‘mini-nukes.’ It would subvert the purpose of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that the UK government has signed and ratified, and it would further undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”15

“No New Nukes”

Campaigners have recently achieved a success with regard to the laser development. The Ministry of Defence has temporarily withdrawn Orion from the planning process following legal arguments from peace activists. Since July 2002, the MoD has been required to carry out environmental impact assessments on all new projects. This had not been done in this case and a local resident threatened a judicial review. This setback is much to be welcomed but there can be no doubt that new nuclear weapons remain high on the nuclear agenda.

But as activists we do have a great opportunity with regard to the development of new nuclear weapons: we can prevent them coming into existence. All too often we find ourselves campaigning for the removal or abolition of some already existing monstrosity. Now we must harness the enormously increased public awareness of weapons of mass destruction and concern over nuclear proliferation to stop these developments. For this reason the current initiative of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) goes under the title “No New Nukes” and has included organizing, together with other peace campaigners, the Aldermaston 2004 march to highlight the government’s plans. Tactical nuclear weapons and ‘bunker busters’ are designed to be used, and may well be used in further pre-emptive wars unless we can stop them: we must reverse these policies and strengthen the non-proliferation regime to achieve our goal of the global abolition of nuclear weapons.

1 Nuclear Posture Review, submitted to Congress on 31 December 2001, Excerpts;
2 Project for the New American Century;
3 Ibid.
4 Mark Bromley, David Grahame, and Christine Kucia, Bunker Busters: Washington’s Drive for New Nuclear Weapons, BASIC Research Report 2.2002, July 2002, p. 10;
5 Fiona Simpson, Non-proliferation and Counter-proliferation: Complementary or Incompatible?, Washington Nuclear Update – NPT PrepCom Key Issues, 11 April 2003;
6 The speech Prime Minister Blair delivered on March 5, 2004, in Sedgefield is available at,12956,1162991,00.html.
7 Ibid.
8 Clive Soley with Ann Clwyd, Intervention after Iraq: the new world order and the Left, March 18, 2004;
9 Jane’s Intelligence Digest, August 15, 2003.
10 The Nuclear Weapon Archive. A Guide to Nuclear Weapons;
11 Aldermaston Women’s Peace Campaign, Aldermaston Update: Next Generation Briefing, September 2003;
12 Ibid.
13 Jane’s Intelligence Digest, August 15, 2003.
14 Ministry of Defence, The Science of Nuclear Warhead Assurance;
15 Nuclear Free Local Authorities press release, 17 February 2004;

Kate Hudson is Chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament;

This article will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation (INESAP).