It is an apocalyptic weapon system that could kill millions of people that thankfully has never been used. It has already cost us £billions and will cost a great deal of money to replace at a time when the nation is in debt and there are so many other things that the money could be spent on. There are millions of poor and starving around the world yet we are building weapons that can destroy whole cities and their populations. There is no doubt the existence of nuclear weapons is a depressing reminder of all that it wrong with humanity. That said, the voices of CND, SNP, The Greens, Lib Dems and many others calling for Britain to abandon the nuclear deterrent may have a deep emotional resonance but their arguments do not stand up to pragmatic examination.
Giving up nuclear weapons means one day another country could decide our destiny
The harsh truth is that to abandon nuclear weapons would be to accept that the fate of the UK could one day be decided by other countries. Without this weapons we may be subject to blackmail, threats or defeat by nations that do posses them. Nuclear weapons are unpleasant but necessary and like it or not, nations that do not posses them will always be in the second rank. If Britain is going to retain power and influence in the world then we need the muscle to back this up. Many see this as about dominating and exploiting other nations, obviously this is something of a grey area but we can and have been a force for good. Despite our much-weakened conventional forces we still hold a seat at the UN security council where we can shape world affairs. (A recent example is the PM’s speech at the UN calling for China and Russia to allow an intervention to end to the violence in Syria). Without nuclear weapons our already waning influence would decline to irrelevance.
The so-called ‘peace campaigners’ believe they have the moral high ground and think they somehow want nuclear war less than those in favour of keeping Trident. This is nonsense, the hundreds of naval personnel who make great personal sacrifices serving on long patrols for months on end do so, not because they are war-mongers, but because they rightly believe that nuclear deterrence helps keeps the peace and their very presence prevents their use.
Since the end of the Cold war it has been argued that the threat of nuclear attack against the UK has receded and we don’t need to worry anymore. While the immediate threat from the Soviet Union is long-gone, Russia still has a large stock of nuclear missiles and retains superpower ambitions, only temporarily checked by financial issues. There is little chance of Russia becoming a nuclear threat in the near future but circumstances can change much faster that the 15-20 years it takes to acquire nuclear armed submarines. In fact the number of nations with nuclear missiles has increased since the end of the cold war. Although China, North Korea, Pakistan and India are far away and appear unlikely to be direct adversaries of the UK, there are many potential conflicts that we can’t ignore and that could at least leave us allied to nations in conflict with these nuclear powers. Who is to say that China, which is expanding its navy fast, will not be routinely sending nuclear armed submarines into the North Atlantic in future? Iran is working hard to obtain nuclear weapons and if not stopped (possibly in the near future by Israel), would leave us facing a nuclear armed country that considers the UK to be “the little Satan”. Even if there is only tension between the UK and a nuclear state it will always be reassuring that our power to strike back will deter even the craziest regimes.
The asymmetric threat is always cited as supposedly making nuclear missiles irrelevant. “What about terrorists with nuclear bombs in a lorry or a shipping container?” Any terrorist must be ultimately be supported by some country (especially to obtain nuclear weapons) and even the most dysfunctional state will think twice about sending terrorists to use nuclear weapons against a nation equipped to retaliate. The nuclear deterrent is really for preventing blackmail by other nations and of course is not the complete answer to the complex problem of terrorism which is really a separate issue.
Europe has had something of a free ride on the back of the US that has provided much of our defence since WWII. Faced with its own decline and financial problems, the US is moving forces away from Europe and into the Pacific as is more concerned with China than Russia. Most of Europe continues to live in dreamland, defence budgets continue to fall in the belief that ‘Uncle Sam’ could still bale us out in a real crisis. Although the UK deterrent will always depend heavily on US technical assistance, it does signal to both the US and the rest of the world that we are not as delusional about defence as most of Europe. Many argue the UK deterrent is worthless because it is a part-American system. Maintaining the system does rely on US co-operation but once at sea, the UK’s missiles can be fired even in the most unlikely event that the US was not involved in the conflict.
Unilateralist who argue that by disarming we could set “a great moral example” to other nations are utterly deluded. While many nations are striving and great cost to build their own nuclear weapons, however well-meaning, disarming would ultimately be interpreted as a sign of weakness and stupidity. In international politics military weakness has never produced peace and stability, usually the opposite. Bullies only respect strength not moral arguments. Jimmy Carter’s administration of the 1970s allowed US military strength to decline. The result was a more unstable world and a more aggressive Soviet Union. Reagan’s resolute strengthening of US forces and its nuclear capabilities forced the Soviets to negotiate a reduction in strength and ultimately achieved the peaceful victory in the Cold War.
Half-baked cost-saving solutions
The tough reality is that replacing Trident will cost around £20+ Billion and this has resulted in several half-baked cost-saving proposals dreamed up by politicians without thorough military analysis and that would simply not be workable. Many studies hunting for savings have always concluded that four ballistic missile submarines are the only minimum credible continuous nuclear deterrent option. Proposals have included building more Astute class submarines to carry nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles. Cruise missiles are much slower than ballistic missiles and any state with a modern air-defence system would have a good chance of defeating them. There is also the highly dangerous confusion factor. It is impossible to tell if a cruise missile has a conventional or nuclear warhead. Conventional Tomahawks have been used regularly since the 1990s – a state that detects a Tomahawk might consider itself under nuclear attack and respond with nuclear weapons. This undermines the concept of deterrence and created dangerous uncertainty. Ballistic missiles are virtually unstoppable (without a colossally expensive and technically dubious ‘star wars’ type defence system).
Another less drastic corner-cutting ‘brainwave’ is to reduce the four submarines to three. This is another solution dreamed up by politicians far removed from the daily reality of operating submarines. Three submarines cannot guarantee a continuous deterrent. 1 submarine must be on patrol, 1 in deep refit, 1 just returned from patrol & undergoing maintenance and 1 preparing for patrol, undergoing training or at short notice to go on patrol should there be a problem. Three submarines put too much pressure on the boats and men leaving no slack for unforeseen problems.
A recent amateurish proposal suggests we abandon submarines and just keep a “bomb in the cupboard” to be wheeled out for some kind of retaliation if we were ever attacked. Assuming ‘the cupboard’ survives a nuclear strike, just how it would be delivered to a highly alert target is unclear. Other really desperate suggestions include returning to 1950s-style missiles launched by aircraft which are of course very vulnerable and much shorter range .
Trident and the cost to the Royal Navy
Many would argue that the RN is so depleted because of the money spent on Trident. “If only we could abandon nuclear weapons we could spend more on conventional forces” they say. This is of course a fantasy, if the deterrent was axed the liberal left, having won such victory, would be pushing for a “peace dividend” and every government department would be fighting for their share. It would be very unlikely there would be the political will to re-allocate the bulk of the money to the RN.
The argument for replacing Trident may be perceived here as about maintaining the prestige of the Royal Navy as the operator of the nation’s deterrent. Such thinking is utterly irrelevant when considering something as weighty as national survival. The costs and responsibilities of Trident and its successor has weighed heavily on the RN and it is one of many reasons the rest of the RN is in such a poor state. In a cold analysis of Britain’s defence needs there is an overwhelming case for funding the deterrent separately rather than the cynical political convenience of taking a huge bite out the RN’s ever-dwindling resources. Of course the pain of replacing Trident would be much less if UK defence was funded properly. With just 2.2% of GDP now allocated to defence, (falling from around 4% of GDP when the Trident project was started in the late 1980s) the cost of the replacement now assumes a greater proportion of the limited budget. Sadly a sensible re-balancing of defence spending is most improbable given the political courage required and ‘sacred cows’ that would have to be sacrificed.
If Trident is not replaced, there would still be very significant immediate costs of decommissioning the nuclear infrastructure, the warheads alone could take 4 years to be dismantled. There would be a loss of jobs and skills and the ability to field ballistic missile submarines would be gone, never to be replaced. The industrial impact would almost certainly deprive the UK of the ability to build further nuclear-powered attack submarines (Arguably the most important conventional naval asset) as the Barrow yard would probably close in the absence of a Trident replacement programme.
Despite making an unholy mess of most aspects of defence, fortunately the dominant Tories in the current coalition government are actually committed to replacing Trident. Design work on the successor has been started and it claims that it is funded in future spending plans. However retaining ongoing political support while the new submarines are constructed will be challenging. In the face of further austerity and economic weakness, watch out for politicians standing on a populist platform that says “lets scrap this horrible weapon (that I can’t be bothered to understand) and spend the money on hospitals (and damn the long-term consequences)”. The case for Trident must kept being made especially with a media that is either outright against the program, luke warm or all-too ready to whip up hysteria about anything nuclear.
- Trident submarine missiles review to suggest ‘stepping down nuclear ladder’ (guardian.co.uk)
- Alexander to lead Trident review (bbc.co.uk)
- Plan for dismantling Britain’s nuclear arsenal (guardian.co.uk)
- Trident contracts worth £350m unveiled by MoD – (May 2012) (energyandnuclear.com)
Leave a comment
- Farewell HMS Illustrious good & faithful servant
- Carrier countdown (Part 2): Their point, purpose and power
- Carrier countdown (Part 1): Debunking the hype, mis-information & nonsense
- Outlook on current ‘hot topics’ for the Royal Navy.
- The spectre of Scottish independence – implications for the Royal Navy
- HMS Alliance to be re-commissioned into active service with the Royal Navy
- The case for building a British hospital ship