The world contains enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet several times over. Most of the nukes belong to Russia and the United States, but Great Britain has long held on to a stockpile of warheads. Since 1968, the world’s nuclear powers have slowly dismantled their nuclear arsenals. Now, for the first time in 50 years, Britain has said it wants to increase its nuclear stockpile.
That’s according to Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy, a Parliamentary report on planned defense spending and strategy. The document contains plans for Britain’s reinvestment in its military, and a big part of that reinvestment is nuclear.
According to the review, Britain’s unnamed enemies are developing new and terrifying types of nuclear weapons that the U.K. must be ready to defend against.
“The increase in global competition, challenges to the international order, and proliferation of potentially disruptive technologies all pose a threat to strategic stability,” the review said. “The U.K. must ensure potential adversaries can never use their capabilities to threaten us or our NATO Allies. Nor can we allow them to constrain our decision-making in a crisis or to sponsor nuclear terrorism.”
To keep the peace, Britain said, it must make the threat of nuclear war real. To that end, it wants to expand its nuclear stockpile. “In 2010 the Government stated an intent to reduce our overall nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling from not more than 225 to not more than 180 by the mid-2020s,” it said. “However, in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats, this is no longer possible, and the UK will move to an overall nuclear weapon stockpile of no more than 260 warheads.”
Increasing the ceiling of its nuclear stockpile by 35 warheads may seem like small stuff, but it’s an incredible change in policy. This is the first time in 50 years that a major nuclear power has increased its nuclear stockpile, that we know of. In 2017, an NBC story reported that Trump told the Pentagon he wanted a 10 fold increase in America’s nuclear stockpile, but he denied the charge. Trump paved the way for new types of nuclear weapons but we don’t know if America’s stockpile grew under his watch. When asked, the Trump White House refused to disclose the current size of the stockpile.
It’s possible that the U.S. got more nukes in the past four years and that we don’t know about it yet. Britain’s defense review was unequivocal: it wants to grow the stockpile. In 1967, the United States had a nuclear stockpile of 31,255 warheads. The U.K. had around 500. In 1968, both signed the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
The NPT’s goal was to stop other nations from developing nuclear weapons and to dismantle the nuclear stockpiles. The world has made remarkable progress since then. The U.S. has about 3,800 active warheads now. Britain has about 200. Russia’s stockpile is at about 4,000, down from its peak of 45,000.
That’s still a lot of nuclear weapons, but the numbers have been trending down for decades. What Britain wants to do is reverse a trend that’s helped keep the nuclear threat at bay. It also claimed it needs to nukes to prevent the possiblity of nuclear terrorism and that it’s still committed to the NPT. “We are strongly committed to full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects, including nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy; there is no credible alternative route to nuclear disarmament,” the defense review said.
Others have pointed out that growing the nuclear stockpile violates the spirit of the NPT.
“A decision by the United Kingdom to increase its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the middle of a pandemic is irresponsible, dangerous and violates international law,” Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said in a statement. “While the majority of the world’s nations are leading the way to a safer future without nuclear weapons by joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the United Kingdom is pushing for a dangerous new nuclear arms race.”
Britain isn’t the only country engaging in a new nuclear arms race. Both Russia and the United States have used modernization as an excuse to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons. Trump deployed a new kind of, smaller, tactical nuclear missile on submarines. In promising to grow its stockpile, Britain is setting a dangerous precedent at a time when the world’s militaries are pushing for new and better kinds of nuclear weapons.