Boris Johnson wants to increase the size of the UK’s nuclear weapons arsenal – a move which could amount to a violation of international law, campaigners and experts have warned.
The government’s integrated defence review, published on Tuesday, revealed Britain would be increasing the size of its nuclear stockpile by 40 per cent, to 260 warheads.
The UK had previously committed to cutting its arsenal to 180 warheads by “the mid-2020s”, but the review said this stance would be changed “in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats”.
Johnson’s announcement comes despite the UK being a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commits the government to gradual nuclear disarmament under international law. Successive administrations have stuck to the policy.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project, said the UK’s plan was “deeply disappointing”.
“This will put Britain in violation of its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Article 6 obligations,” he said. Government ministers had publicly acknowledged, as recently as 2015, that cuts to the size of the country’s nuclear arsenal were part of its obligations under the treaty.
Speaking at a United Nations conference in 2015, Baroness Anelay – a Foreign Office minister – said the UK “remains firmly committed to step-by-step disarmament, and our obligations under Article 6”.
She suggested action would soon follow, including cutting “our total number of operationally available warheads to no more than 120” and reducing the “overall nuclear warhead stockpile to not more than 180 by the mid-2020s”.
Reacting to the new announcement, Beatrice Fihn – executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said: “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.
“While the British people are struggling to cope with the pandemic, an economic crisis, violence against women, and racism, the government choses to increase insecurity and threats in the world. This is toxic masculinity on display.
“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.”
In a further statement, the organisation suggested that Britain would face censure at the upcoming NPT Review conference – which is due to take place at the United Nations in August.
“The United Kingdom is legally obligated under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue disarmament. States will meet soon to review the NPT’s success and when they do, the UK will have to answer for its actions,” the statement said.
Kate Hudson, the general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said: “A decision to increase Britain’s nuclear arsenal absolutely goes against our legal obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“Not only is the UK failing to take the required steps towards disarmament, it is wilfully and actively embarking on a new nuclear arms race – at a time when Presidents Biden and Putin have renewed their bilateral nuclear reductions Treaty.
“Britain must not be responsible for pushing the world towards nuclear war. This is a dangerous and irresponsible move, and must be reversed.”
Speaking ahead of the review’s release, Dominic Raab – the foreign secretary – said increasing the stockpile was the “ultimate insurance policy”.
Asked why the government wanted to end three decades of gradual disarmament, Raab said: “Because over time as the circumstances change and the threats change, we need to maintain a minimum credible level of deterrent.
“Why? Because it is the ultimate guarantee, the ultimate insurance policy against the worst threat from hostile states.”
The Scottish National Party, which is responsible for the territory where the arsenal is actually based, slammed the plans.
Stewart McDonald, the party’s defence spokesperson, said it “beggars belief” for “Boris Johnson to stand up and champion the international rules-based system before announcing in the same breath that the UK plans to violate its commitments to the international treaty on non-proliferation”.
“Renewing Trident nuclear weapons was already a shameful and regressive decision, however, increasing the cap on the number of Trident weapons the UK can stockpile by more than 40 per cent is nothing short of abhorrent,” he added.
“It speaks volumes of the Tory government’s spending priorities that it is intent on increasing its collection of weapons of mass destruction – which will sit and gather dust unless the UK has plans to indiscriminately wipe out entire populations – rather than address the serious challenges and inequalities in our society that have been further exposed by the pandemic.”