One expert described these moves as “a striking reversal of a two-decade push towards nuclear disarmament.” More strident criticisms emerged from disarmament activists, who described the stockpile cap increase as “outrageous, irresponsible and very dangerous.”
Second many experts were concerned that the UK decision will undermine transparency by no longer disclosing information on its operational stockpile, deployed missiles and deployed warheads. While all nuclear weapons states embrace ambiguity about the circumstances in which they would use nuclear weapons, albeit to varying degrees, there is an inherent tension in seeking to both maintain acceptable levels of ambiguity for deterrence purposes while also providing sufficient detail to decrease the likelihood of misperception and miscalculation. In adopting greater levels of ambiguity, observers feared that this could undermine an important tool of predictability in the nuclear age, and ultimately undermine the United Kingdom’s position as a self-ascribed “responsible nuclear weapons state.”
The United Kingdom attributed these changes to the evolving international security landscape, with rising competition and threats emanating from actors such as Russia and China, who are increasing and diversifying their nuclear capabilities. Open-source researchers uncovered new Chinese missile silo constructions in mid-2021, and Russia has spent the past decade modernizing and expanding its nuclear forces, to include various dual-capable systems. For example, in Ukraine Russia used the hypersonic Kinzhal missile, which can carry nuclear weapons. These developments along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine arguably justify the UK’s decision to adjust its nuclear posture to the worsening security environment.
Three Challenges for Implementing the Integrated Review
But recent events have also pointed to forthcoming challenges for the UK in implementing the Integrated Review. Three such challenges stand out: balancing strategic competition in Europe and the Indo-Pacific; maintaining unity for NATO’s nuclear mission; and re-establishing disarmament leadership.
1. Balancing strategic competition in Europe and the Indo-Pacific
One defining feature of the Integrated Review was its focus on the Indo-Pacific, identified as the “centre of intensifying geopolitical competition with multiple potential flashpoints.” The Review specifies the UK’s aim of becoming a “European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific – committed for the long term, with closer and deeper partnerships, bilaterally and multilaterally.” We have already seen this shift in practice with the announced “AUKUS agreement”, a new trilateral partnership in which the United Kingdom and the United States will help Australia develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines, as well as recent high-level US-UK consultations on the region.
This focus is not so much a “pivot” away from Europe, but rather a widening of Britain’s strategic gaze to include two strategic competitors. The Review specified Russia as “the most acute direct threat to the UK” and the Euro-Atlantic region as “critical to the UK’s security and prosperity....” With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UK has entered a new period of sustained confrontation with Russia that only serves to reinforce this interpretation. Regardless of how the conflict unfolds in the short-term, it is clear that European security has been transformed and the UK, along with NATO and EU member states, will need to prepare themselves for a period of increasingly aggressive conventional and unconventional activities in the region.