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Boris Johnson’s vision for post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ includes more nuclear weapons

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/16/2021 William Booth
a large ship in the water: The HMS Vigilant is one of Britain’s four nuclear warhead-carrying submarines. © James Glossop/AFP via Getty Images The HMS Vigilant is one of Britain’s four nuclear warhead-carrying submarines.

LONDON —In a declaration of its aspiration to become "Global Britain," Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday unveiled his government's 10-year plan to boost international trade and deploy soft power around the world. But Johnson's government surprised many by declaring it would also increase its arsenal of nuclear warheads, not only to deter traditional threats but also to confront biological, chemical and perhaps even cyber assaults.

In the sweeping review of its priorities for the coming decade, the 110-page document titled “Global Britain in a competitive age” declared that the U.K. would raise the cap on the number of nuclear warheads aboard the Royal Navy’s Trident submarines — from 180 to 260, an increase of more than 40 percent. The document also vowed to maintain a fleet of four nuclear-armed subs, so it would always have one at sea, ready to respond.

The new goal appears to mark a profound shift away from Britain’s long commitment to nonproliferation. For decades now, Britain seemed content to reduce its aging nuclear arsenal, not bolster it.

Britain has around 200 warheads, and past Conservative Party governments had pledged to reduce the number to 180 by the mid-2020s.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told reporters the country was not seeking a new arms race but simply wanted to maintain a minimal credible deterrence.

“Why? Because it is the ultimate guarantee, the ultimate insurance policy against the worst threat from hostile states,” Raab said.

The review released Tuesday, which was two years in the making, foresees a possible proliferation of nuclear weapons outside Britain, alongside advanced conventional weapons and “novel military technologies.”

a man wearing a suit and tie: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is breaking with previous prime minister’s from his Conservative Party. © Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is breaking with previous prime minister’s from his Conservative Party.

The document states that Britain “will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 1968 (NPT).” But it adds: “We reserve the right to review this assurance if the future threat of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological capabilities, or emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact, makes it necessary.”

The British government said the increase in warheads was “in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threat.”

Experts reviewing the language said it suggests in the event of crippling biological, chemical, cyber or “dirty bomb” attacks of mass proportions, then Britain would consider a nuclear counterattack.

Britain’s smaller political parties condemned the move. A Green Party member of parliament, Caroline Lucas, called the increase a “provocative, illegal and morally obscene use of resources.” The Scottish National Party tweeted: “A shameful sum of money that could be used to tackle child poverty instead.”

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said his party remains committed to the Trident submarine program and the maintenance of a credible deterrent, but he told the House of Commons that Johnson’s plan to increase the armory “breaks the goal of successive prime ministers and cross-party efforts to reduce our nuclear stockpile. It doesn’t explain, when, why, or for what strategic purpose.”

Kate Hudson, the general secretary of U.K.-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said in a statement: “This is no time to start a new nuclear arms race. As the world wrestles with the pandemic and climate chaos, it beggars belief that our government is opting to increase Britain’s nuclear arsenal.”

Hudson noted that President Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladmir Putin, last month “agreed to further reduce their nuclear arsenals by renewing the New START Treaty.”

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