Increase of Britain’s Nuclear Weapon Stockpile

The British government decided to raise the ceiling of its nuclear arsenal for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union‭ ‬at the conclusion of the Security‭, ‬Defense and Foreign Policy Strategic Review‭, ‬published in mid-March 2021‭. ‬Under this review‭,‬‭ ‬the ceiling on the UK’s nuclear warhead stockpile will be increased from 180‭ ‬to 260‭, ‬an increase that‭  ‬amounts to about 45%‭, ‬putting an end to the gradual disarmament process that has been implemented since the fall of the Soviet Union thirty years ago‭. ‬Britain justified the change with what it described as‭ “‬a growing set of technological and ideological threats‭”.‬

In addition to the foregoing‭, ‬the United Kingdom will not put a public limit on the number of missiles carrying nuclear warheads‭, ‬which are ready for launch at any time‭, ‬which was previously set at the limits of 120‭ ‬warheads‭, ‬nor will it provide any information on the number of warheads and missiles its submarines carry‭, ‬which were previously designated at a level of no more than 40‭ ‬warheads and 8‭ ‬missiles‭, ‬respectively‭. ‬Also‭, ‬Britain announced that it would not reveal the circumstances that might compel it‭ ‬to use its nuclear weapons as an indication of its adoption of the strategy of‭ “‬strategic ambiguity‭”, ‬in a move aimed at complicating the calculations of potential opponents regarding their threatening London’s interests or national security‭. ‬The current‭ ‬study aims to clarify the dimensions and implications of this decision‭.‬

First‭: ‬Dimensions of the nuclear review

The British review report attributed its decision to increase the number of nuclear warheads to many considerations related to a‭ ‬change in the international security environment‭, ‬the‭ “‬possibility of a‭” ‬terrorist group‭ “‬succeeding in launching a chemical‭, ‬biological‭, ‬radiological or nuclear attack by 2030‭, ‬as well as facing the‭” ‬active threat‭ “‬from Russia and the‭ “‬systemic challenge‭” ‬from China‭, ‬as well as the threats emanating from North Korea and Iran‭. ‬This is in addition to other considerations represented in keeping Britain’s status as a major military power in the wake of its withdrawal from the European Union‭. ‬These motives can be detailed as follows‭:‬

1‭ ‬Deterring the terrorist challenge‭: ‬The British defense review document indicates that one of the threats facing Britain is the possibility of the emergence of nuclear‭, ‬chemical or biological terrorism supported by the state‭, ‬that is‭, ‬for a rogue state possessing nuclear‭, ‬chemical or biological capabilities to transfer nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations and direct them to target Britain‭, ‬as in this case‭, ‬London will respond not to the terrorist organization‭, ‬but to the country that supplied the terrorist organization with weapons of mass destruction‭.‬

Consequently‭, ‬deterrence will not be against the terrorist organization‭, ‬but against countries that supply it with such weapons‭.‬‭ ‬Although the document acknowledges that such a threat does not exist now‭, ‬it reiterates that nuclear weapons highlight their importance as a guarantee in the face of the unknown future‭.‬

2‭ ‬Confronting the Russian and Chinese threat‭:‬‭ ‬Britain tends to increase its nuclear warheads to keep pace with the escalating competition between the major powers‭, ‬specifically the United States‭, ‬Russia and China‭, ‬and the tendency of these powers to increase their stockpiles of nuclear weapons‭.‬

If the United States is an ally of Britain‭, ‬Russia and China are raising great security concerns for London‭, ‬especially with the‭ ‬two countries expressing their willingness to employ armed force‭, ‬either directly‭, ‬similar to Russia’s occupation of Crimea‭, ‬or‭ ‬indirectly‭, ‬by adopting gray areas and armed militia tactics in eastern Ukraine for Moscow‭, ‬or in the South China Sea‭, ‬for Beijing‭, ‬to impose a new fait accompli that guarantees the interests of the two countries‭, ‬and comes at the expense of the interests‭ ‬of Western countries‭.‬

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace revealed another obsession that haunts London‭, ‬pushing it to increase its stockpile of nuclear weapons and to possess reliable deterrence capabilities‭, ‬which is a response to progress in Russian capabilities‭, ‬especially in the field of missile defense systems‭.‬

More specifically‭, ‬Britain is concerned about the Russian S-500‭ ‬air defense system‭, ‬which is expected to be unveiled later in 2021‭, ‬and which has the ability to intercept ballistic and winged missiles‭, ‬and possibly hypersonic missiles‭. ‬It is unclear precisely the full capabilities of the S-500‭ ‬ballistic missiles‭, ‬especially since some military experts confirm Moscow’s exaggeration‭ ‬in portraying its capabilities in this field‭.‬

Other concerns of the British military include the collapse of the INF Treaty‭, ‬and Moscow’s development of short-range ballistic‭ ‬missiles such as the M729‭, ‬which Washington claims violates the previous treaty‭. ‬Another British defense document referred to hypersonic weapons and‭ “‬early warning radar and integrated air defense systems‭” ‬as a potential challenge to Britain’s ability to‭ ‬conduct military operations‭.‬

Of course‭, ‬London’s view of Moscow as one of its security threats reveals Britain’s commitment to ensuring European security‭, ‬even after London’s withdrawal from the European Union‭. ‬As for China‭, ‬Britain has come to view Beijing with a great deal of concern‭, ‬as was evident in London’s ban on purchasing fifth-generation technologies from the Chinese company Huawei‭.‬

3‭ ‬Curbing the Iranian and North Korean Challenge‭:‬‭ ‬The British review document believes that the resort of some countries to militarizing their foreign policy and adopting opportunistic methods‭, ‬such as Iran and North Korea‭, ‬are among the main factors that have contributed to the deterioration of regional‭ ‬security and the weakening of the international system‭.‬

The risks emanating from Iran are magnified by its reliance on non-state armed groups in its plans to enhance its influence and‭ ‬undermine regional stability‭. ‬These groups are also using the same methods that states follow‭, ‬such as launching cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns‭. ‬The document clarified that some countries‭ (‬such as Iran and others‭) ‬are increasingly cooperating with armed militias to achieve their goals‭, ‬including their employment as proxies in the conflict‭, ‬in a manner that gives this state the ability to deny its involvement in the attacks carried out by these militias‭, ‬as well as blurring the line between the threats emanating from the state and those emanating from terrorist organizations and armed militias‭.‬

The strategy clearly stated the importance of responding to emerging threats from some countries‭, ‬such as Iran and North Korea‭, ‬who seek to acquire advanced and dual-use technologies‭; ‬and strengthening efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation‭. ‬It seems that the document sees London’s possession of a sufficient number of nuclear weapons as one of the basic methods for achieving deterrence vis-à-vis the two states‭, ‬especially since Britain is a key partner in efforts to deny Iran the possession of nuclear weapons‭, ‬through negotiations aimed at returning it to the nuclear agreement and laying down more stringent controls‭. ‬London also remains the most prominent non-regional power participating in the negotiations aimed at denuclearizing North Korea and imposing‭ ‬sanctions on it in order to ensure its commitment to disarming its nuclear weapons‭.‬

4‭ ‬Strengthening the British military position‭: ‬Britain seeks to confirm its status as an influential international power in the wake of its withdrawal from the European Union‭,‬‭ ‬and to remain a difficult number‭, ‬not only in the European security equation‭, ‬but also in the international security equation‭, ‬which requires London to strengthen its military capabilities‭, ‬Especially in the field of nuclear weapons‭.‬

Second‭: ‬the implications of the British move

The British move reflects a number of shifts in the British strategic thinking towards the nature of the threats that Britain has to face‭, ‬and at the same time it bears a number of negative repercussions‭, ‬which can be explained as follows‭:‬

1‭ ‬Expanding the scope of nuclear weapon use‭:‬‭ ‬The British review document revealed a slight change in the policy of using nuclear weapons‭, ‬as it made clear that the United Kingdom would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries that are parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons‭, ‬which fully comply with it‭. ‬It made an important exception‭, ‬which is that it reserves the right to review this in‭ ‬light of future threats emanating from chemical or biological weapons‭, ‬or emerging technologies‭.‬

Given that Russia‭, ‬and to a lesser extent‭, ‬China‭, ‬is one of the countries working to develop innovative new weapons‭, ‬such as hypersonic missiles‭, ‬the British threat is mainly directed at Russia‭, ‬and a warning to it that any attempt to use new weapons against it‭, ‬gives it a strategic advantage in confronting London‭, ‬it may push the latter to escalate the use of nuclear weapons against it‭. ‬And then pushes Moscow‭, ‬or any other country‭, ‬to review its accounts before considering launching any attack against it‭.‬

2‭ ‬The priority of the Russian threat over the Chinese‭:‬‭ ‬It is noted from the review document that it gave priority to the Russian threat over the Chinese‭, ‬which is clear from the phrases used‭. ‬With regard to China‭, ‬the document indicated its concern about China’s‭ “‬assertive‭” ‬policies‭. ‬As for Russia‭, ‬it considered it‭ “‬the biggest direct threat to the United Kingdom‭,” ‬which in part reflects the legacy of the historical differences between the two sides‭, ‬as well as the existence of concerns about the Russian threat to Eastern Europe countries‭, ‬and the active role‭ ‬London played through NATO in supporting these countries to confront Russia‭. ‬Despite this‭, ‬the review document enumerated a large number of behaviors‭, ‬which could be classified as threats emanating from the two states‭, ‬such as authoritarianism‭, ‬militarization of space use‭, ‬cyber-attacks and disinformation‭. ‬But Moscow remains a bigger threat to London than Beijing‭, ‬given its enormous military power‭, ‬in addition to its progress in the field of military technology‭, ‬not to mention its involvement in files that‭ ‬receive direct attention from European countries in general‭, ‬and Britain in particular‭, ‬such as the Ukrainian crisis‭.‬

3‭ ‬Weakening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty‭:‬‭ ‬Britain’s announcement of increasing its arsenals of nuclear weapons is in violation of the NPT‭, ‬and this was confirmed by the spokesperson of the United Nations Secretary-General‭, ‬Estefandogarik‭, ‬who emphasized that‭ ‬“this declaration is inconsistent with the disarmament obligations that all-nuclear countries have undertaken‭. ” ‬Also‭, ‬this would‭ ‬weaken the legitimacy of British diplomacy aimed at preventing more countries from acquiring nuclear weapons‭, ‬similar to North‭ ‬Korea‭. ‬But on the other hand‭, ‬these considerations will not affect British policy‭, ‬given that security threats are the main driver of London’s tendency to increase its nuclear arsenals‭. ‬Other major countries‭, ‬especially the United States and China‭, ‬are heading to develop their nuclear arsenals‭.‬

4‭ ‬A new nuclear arms race‭:‬‭ ‬The British move is expected to fuel a new nuclear arms race between the major powers‭. ‬The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister‭, ‬Sergey Ryabkov‭, ‬emphasized that the London decision was unjustified and politically harmful‭, ‬describing it as‭ “‬destructive from the‭ ‬point of view of enhancing global stability‭,” ‬and considered it a new indication of the possibility of an international arms race‭. ‬But on the other hand‭, ‬China also announced the development of nuclear weapons‭. ‬It has previously rejected US efforts to include it in the nuclear non-proliferation negotiations‭, ‬on the grounds that the number of nuclear bombs owned by Beijing is limited compared to the United States and Russia‭, ‬and does not exceed 260‭ ‬nuclear weapons‭, ‬while Russia and the United States together possess about 88%‭ ‬of the nuclear arsenal in the world‭. ‬Russia has 6,375‭ ‬nuclear weapons‭, ‬followed by the United States with 5‭,‬800‭ ‬nuclear weapons‭.‬

In conclusion‭, ‬the British review document reflects London’s readiness for a new international environment‭, ‬in which there are increasing threats emanating from competition with major powers‭, ‬whether in the areas of direct influence of these forces‭, ‬or even in the struggle to explore outer space‭, ‬and the British review document is warning that some countries are supplying armed agents with specific chemical‭, ‬biological or nuclear weapons‭, ‬to launch attacks targeting the security of Britain‭, ‬and it seeks to‭ ‬deter this by maintaining a degree of strategic ambiguity about the controls over its use of nuclear weapons against its opponents‭.

Sources and references

Tom Plant and Matthew Harries‭, ‬Going Ballistic‭: ‬The UK’s Proposed Nuclear Build-up‭, ‬RUSI‭, ‬March 16‭, ‬2021‭, ‬accessible at‭: ‬https‭://‬

Heather Williams‭, ‬U.K‭. ‬Nuclear Weapons‭: ‬Beyond The Numbers‭, ‬War on the Rocks‭, ‬April 6‭, ‬2021‭, ‬https‭://‬

Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos‭, ‬UK to Increase Cap on Nuclear Warhead Stockpile‭, ‬Arms Control Association,April 2021‭, ‬https‭://‬

Heather Williams‭, ‬op.cit‭.‬

Global Britain in a competitive age‭; ‬The Integrated Review of Security‭, ‬Defence‭, ‬Development and Foreign Policy‭, ‬HM Government‭, ‬March 2021‭, ‬p‭. ‬70‭, ‬https‭://‬

Global Britain in a competitive age‭, ‬op.cit‭., ‬p‭. ‬85‭.‬


‮»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Dr‭. ‬Shady Abdel Wahab

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