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Behind the Headlines

Boris’s nuclear gamble

Britain is boosting its arsenal of nuclear weapons to stay “match-fit for a more competitive world”, Boris Johnson declared this week. The newly published defence and security review explains the about-turn – lifting a self-imposed cap of 180 warheads to 260 – as a reaction to adversaries “significantly increasing and diversifying their nuclear arsenals”, and to other, murkier “technological threats”.

The adversaries aren’t specified, but China and Russia have both hit back. An editorial in China’s state-owned Global Times said the “immature” policy originated from “London’s fantasy of reviving its past glory as a world superpower”. A Kremlin spokesman said the document “harmed international stability”, apparently without irony.

It’s hard to reconcile these new nukes with Britain’s non-proliferation commitments, which promise “systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally”. And it’s going to be hard from a technical standpoint, says Newsnight’s diplomatic editor, Mark Urban. The UK nuclear weapons industry is “more than six years behind schedule” in updating Trident to the standards expected by our US partners. That has already caused problems: our navies share a common pool of missiles. We haven’t even built the facilities to make those upgrades, let alone start on this new stuff. The whole thing’s years away, so why talk about it now? It’s a “token of ‘great power’ status”, says Urban, and a sign to allies like the US that we’re willing to “share more of the burden” of world security.

Bravo, say Bruno Tertrais and Georgina Wright of the French Institut Montaigne think tank. This is “by far the most ambitious reassessment of the UK’s security, defence, development and foreign policy since the Cold War”. And it’s about time. Finally, Britain is becoming, like France, an “unrepentant and shameless nuclear power”. And Johnson’s ambition to turn the UK into a “science and technology superpower” will delight allies such as President Macron. “The UK knows it must demarcate itself after Brexit and present its new strategic personality with clout.” After four years of “empty Global Britain slogans”, we’re starting to see what that really looks like. Formidable