Nuclear Education Trust

British military attitudes to nuclear weapons and disarmament

A ground-breaking study into how the UK's military community views nuclear weapons and disarmament has highlighted significant concerns about the costs and risks of Trident, raising questions about its future. The funding crisis facing the Ministry of Defence means that nuclear weapons spending is increasingly seen as unjustifiable when conventional equipment is needed and many have lost their jobs.

The findings of the study were based on interviews with a range of ex-services personnel, up to and including former Chiefs of Staff. They reflect a wider concern amongst serving top-ranking officers that the government is not making the right choices about the nation's security. Many interviewees stated that nuclear weapons do not meet the UK's security needs, and saw nuclear weapons as political 'status symbols' as well as being military in nature. This raises important questions about the strategic direction the UK is taking, especially when the UK's contribution to NATO is under scrutiny following the crisis in Ukraine.

The research also reflected the ambivalence felt by some military personnel towards Trident given concerns over its purpose and credibility. Other findings included a common feeling that there has been a reduction in the understanding of and interest in nuclear weapons by senior decision-makers, who participate less in military exercises involving possible nuclear scenarios. Likewise, there has been deterioration in relevant skills and understanding within the Ministry of Defence and the defence industry, and a decline in training within the military itself.

Download the report: British military attitudes to nuclear weapons and disarmament and executive summary. You can also view a presentation on the report made by researcher Henrietta Wilson at the report launch.

The following article from BASIC complements the research reported here by considering these issues within the current domestic and international political context.

About the research study

The study has been undertaken jointly by the Nuclear Education Trust and Nuclear Information Service into military attitudes to nuclear weapons. The study obtained information through interviews with a range of ex-services personnel conducted over an eight month period from July 2014 – February 2015.  The report on the work was launched at a meeting in Parliament on Wednesday 24th June, chaired by Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, a Green Party member of the London Assembly. A short presentation by report author Henrietta Wilson on the results of the study was followed by comments from Admiral Lord Alan West and Major General Patrick Cordingley, gave their views on the issues raised by the study and the Trident submarine replacement programme.

Major General Patrick Cordingley, former Commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade (Desert Rats) said: "Strategic nuclear weapons have no military use. It would seem the Government wishes to replace Trident simply to remain a nuclear power alongside the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council. This is misguided and flies in the face of public opinion; we have more to offer than nuclear bombs".

Admiral Lord Alan West, former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, said: "The NET and NIS research into attitudes of the British Military (retired for practical reasons) to nuclear weapons and disarmament is useful work adding to a relatively small number of documents from public debate relating to the replacement of the Vanguard Class Submarines."

"Having said that there is nothing particularly startling in the results. The vast majority support maintenance of a minimum deterrent and think running on Trident is the best option. There is a feeling that the Treasury should pay for the capital costs of replacement as the deterrent is not a war-fighting weapon but rather of political last resort."

Lord West is a former First Sea Lord and a Labour peer.  He is a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office with responsibility for security, and was a security advisor to Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Major General Cordingley is best known as the former commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade – the Desert Rats.  He was the commander who in 1991 led the British and American forces which overcame the Iraqi defences during the first Iraq war.  He is now a writer and commentator on international affairs.


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