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Sun. June 23, 2024
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Echoes of the Thatcher’s Nuclear Deterrence Narratives
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In March 1987, Margaret Thatcher visited the Soviet Union for the first time. During a meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Thatcher made a statement that sounded dissonant against the backdrop of recent statements by Gorbachev and U.S. President Reagan about their intentions to reduce nuclear weapons in both countries:

«But the U.S. is far away across the ocean, while the Soviet Union is in Europe. And it is much easier for the Soviet Union to transfer troops by rail or other means than it is for the United States to cross the ocean. Plus, we have to take political factors into account as well. Soviet troops did not hesitate to enter Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and then Afghanistan. So why would they hesitate before they go somewhere else. And what do we have to rely on? On our and French nuclear weapons? This is a completely different question. That is why I say that your military superiority in a nuclear-free Europe would threaten the balance».

Later, on Soviet state television, she explained in detail her reasons to consider destructive nuclear weapons to be the guarantee to peace. She was talking about a method to prevent the war in Europe at least – a nuclear deterrence. The British leader believed nuclear weapons had preserved the peace for the previous 40 years, and that they were essential for deterrence and security. 

Since then, the geopolitical landscape has changed significantly. There is no longer a USSR on the world map, but there is Russia, which inherited all the nuclear weapons of the USSR. In addition, not only the USSR's nuclear weapons were inherited, but also the methods of geopolitical influence, i.e. to some extent Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan during the Soviet era were transformed into Georgia, Ukraine and Syria during the Russian era. This is where the echo of Thatcher's 1987 question comes in: «And what do we have to rely on? On our and French nuclear weapons?». Given the UK government's announcement in January of this year that it will again deploy US tactical nuclear weapons on its territory, the current answer to Thatcher's question is “Yes, nuclear deterrence is once again becoming a relevant security tool in Europe.

The United States is planning to station nuclear weapons in the UK for the first time in 15 years as the threat from Russia increases. Procurement contracts for a new facility at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk confirm that the US intends to place nuclear warheads three times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb at the air base. Tactical nuclear weapons will be deployed by F-35 fighter jets. Te Pentagon has ordered new equipment for the base, including ballistic shields designed to protect military personnel from attacks on “high value assets”. Construction on a new housing facility for American forces working on the site will begin in June.

Nuclear deterrence is not about war. It is about preventing it. Perhaps that is why the UK is in no hurry to increase defense spending, including on the production and purchase of conventional weapons, from the current 2% of GDP to the Cold War level of 4-5%. Nuclear deterrence is also a less expensive national security tool for the UK.

It is noteworthy that compared to 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and carried out acts of hybrid aggression in Eastern Ukraine, the UK's defense spending as a percentage of GDP has decreased, not increased. A similar trend was also demonstrated by the United States, Turkey, and Croatia. All other NATO countries have increased their defense spending as a percentage of GDP during this time. Moreover, since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the UK's defense spending as a percentage of GDP has also decreased. This negative trend from 2021 to 2023 was also demonstrated by the United States, Greece, Croatia, Italy, Norway, Turkey, and Portugal.

The highest defense spending in the UK during the NATO era was in 1953, at 9.8% of the country's GDP. This was when there was a war in Korea, but by the end of the 50s, this figure had dropped to 6.52% - by that time, the UK already had both its own nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons of the United States. Later, this figure only decreased - in 1970 it amounted to 4.65% of GDP, in 1980 - 4.49% of GDP, and in 1990 - 3.56% of GDP.

Thus, in 2014 and 2022, two events involving Russia took place in Europe, which echoed Thatcher's statement of the 1980s, and neither of them caused the UK's defense spending to increase to Cold War levels. On the contrary, defense spending as a percentage of GDP in the UK has decreased.

According to the recent paper by Bowen and Chapman “the obvious current constraint on further nuclear enhancements is the poor fiscal environment. The proposed defence budget rise to 3% of GDP, amounting to £157 billion over eight years”, has been cancelled”. With reference to the 2022 Chalmers’ paper “to deliver on its commitment to spend 3% of GDP on defence by 2030, the UK government would need to increase defence spending by about 60% in real terms. This is equivalent to about £157 billion in additional spending over the next eight years, compared with current planning assumptions. By comparison, the 2020 Spending Review, and the associated Integrated Review, allocated an extra £16.5 billion over four years. This would be the biggest increase since the early 1950s, when concern that the Korean War might escalate to a wider war with the Soviet Union led to UK defence spending increase”.

While the Chancellor recently committed to maintaining the defence budget at least at 2% of GDP in his November statement, a weak pound and soaring inflation would make any new procurement project difficult to keep within budget. Bowen and Chapman noted that “Even with these factors in mind, it is worth considering that nuclear defence spending amounts to some 6% of the defence budget, and this arguably makes it highly cost effective compared to conventional military alternatives. But any increase to nuclear defence spending will inevitably come at the cost of the conventional side of the house at a time when the Alliance is looking to bolster conventional defences and deterrence against Russia”.

Therefore, nuclear weapons again became a compensator for the security vacuum, and in January 2024, the UK again turned to the United States for them. The echo of Thatcher's statement from the 1980s, with the key words “nuclear deterrence”, was heard by the UK government in 2024.

In his 28 November 2022 Mansion House speech, Prime Minister Sunak issued the 21st century version of the 1987 statement by Thatcher that ‘today the pace of geopolitical change is intensifying’ and ‘our adversaries and competitors plan for the long term’. In response, he spoke about ‘standing up to our competitors’ and to do this ‘through our diplomatic expertise, science and tech leadership, and investment in defence and security…’, and ‘by dramatically increasing the quality and depth of our partnerships with like-minded allies around the world’.

Recently, it is clear that like Thatcher in the 80s’, in the conditions describe above, Sunak meant the United States as the like-minded ally and nuclear deterrence as a part of this response.

 

 

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