Boris Johnson’s plan to increase the size of the UK’s nuclear weapons stockpile amounts to a violation of international law, campaigners and experts have warned.
The government’s integrated defence review on Tuesday said the UK would be increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal by 40 per cent, to 260 warheads.
The UK had previously been committed to cutting its stockpile to 180 warheads by “the mid-2020s”, but the review said this policy would be changed “in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats”.
The 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 – a policy successive administrations have stuck to.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project, described the UK announcement as “deeply disappointing”.
“This will put Britain in violation of its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Article 6 obligations,” he said.
He pointed out that UK government ministers had as recently as 2015 publicly acknowledged that cuts in nuclear arsenal size were parts of its obligations under the treaty.
In a speech to the United Nations NPT conference on 27 April 2015, FCO minister Baroness Anelay had said the UK “remains firmly committed to step-by-step disarmament, and our obligations under Article 6”.
She suggested action to meet these obligations included cutting “our total number of operationally available warheads to no more than 120” and reducing “our overall nuclear warhead stockpile to not more than 180 by the mid 2020s”.
Reacting to the new policy, Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, stated: “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 suggestions the UK would face censure at the next NPT Review conference, which is due to take place in August at the United Nations.
“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.
Article 6 of the NPT, to which Britain is a signatory, commits countries to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”.
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 on Monday ahead of the review’s release, Dominic Raab described increasing the stockpile as the “ultimate insurance policy” against threats from hostile states.
Asked why the government wanted to end three decades of gradual disarmament, Mr Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “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.”
But the plans were slammed by the Scottish National Party, which governs Scotland, where the nuclear arsenal is actually based.
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 said.
“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.”
It is not clear who the government thinks it might use the weapons against or who it thinks might consider launching a nuclear attack on the UK.
Just nine countries in the world still have nuclear weapons, putting the UK out-of-step with most of its European neighbours.
France is the only country in the European Union with nuclear weapons. The other recognised nuclear state under the NPT are the United States, Russia, and China.
India, Pakistan, and North Korea also have weapons, and Israel is generally understood to have weapons but does not publicly acknowledge their existence.
The claim that the UK is violating international law on its nuclear disarmament obligations comes after ministers admitted to breaking it over Brexit. The government suggested this breach was acceptable because the law had only been broken in a “limited and specific” way.