This is one of those subjects about which everyone seems to have an opinion, but few have either knowledge or experience of the subject. The country is replete with armchair generals, thinking of nuclear strategy as akin to a computer game. It is not – it is, in fact, a very expensive way of maintaining the illusion that the United Kingdom remains a global power.
It is relatively straightforward to take a view on Trident, considering the various elements surrounding the debate. There are three key issues: what is the military case for and against Trident; what is the economic case; what is the ethical case (shades of Robin Cook!)? All overlap in the policy debate, and its relevance to foreign policy, as well as defence.
Trident was meant to deter attack by the Warsaw Pact. Now, other than Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, the countries of the Warsaw Pact are either in NATO, the EU or both. That enemy has gone. Despite an aggressive Putin, no one seriously considers a return to the strategy of MAD – mutually assured destruction. Our enemies today are different, and fight a different kind of warfare – asymmetrical warfare, using suicide bombs and terrorist attacks.
Nuclear armed submarines are irrelevant to these threats. We need a different type of thinking based on intelligence and early interdiction. We also need to invest in more conventional types of equipment and weapons if we are to meet the real threats which are out there in a very dangerous world.
All of the forces are cash-strapped and require investment. Instead, we have carriers with no planes, frigates with duff engines, and a lack of patrol aircraft. Meanwhile, we are set to plough billions into submarines as major maritime nations like America, Russia and China develop the means to pinpoint submarines underwater – their hitherto impenetrable camouflage.
No one can say what the final cost of Trident will be if it goes ahead. Estimates begin at £100 billion and escalate rapidly. The whole history of defence expenditure consists of ever-rising costs, poor products, and late delivery. Yet I hear the voices of vested interests cry: “Thousands of skilled jobs depend on Trident approval.” Why must this be? Can we not apply those skills in building, for example, underwater vessels to harvest the mineral riches of the oceans? Is there not a read-across to work in the renewable energy sector?
Remember that the launch vehicles will be built and maintained in the United States. It is intended for the submarines to be built at Barrow. Have we lost the will and the ability to beat swords into ploughshares? That way, we might just put the “great” back into Britain.
One can think of a whole range of areas where the vast sums required for Trident might be better spent. In addition to the unmet security needs, we have communities across the land being stripped of resources in the name of ‘austerity’; and NHS being squeezed continuously; and an economy crying out for infrastructure investment. We do not have the wealth of a superpower, so why do some insist we spend like one?
It is partly because, as a nation, we seem collectively unable to accept that we are simply one of many medium sized countries, although admittedly, still an influential one. Possession of Trident, despite the American stranglehold on it, fosters the illusion that we have an independent nuclear deterrent, and remain, therefore, a global power.
This is plainly untrue. In Iraq, the Americans had to bail out the UK forces in Basra. We just do not have the military muscle which we imagine. Small scale operations like Kosovo and Sierra Leone are one thing; but the likes of Afghanistan – where the Americans and Soviets were beaten back – reveal our military limitations.
The best offer proponents of Trident can give is that it gives us a place at the high table of global power. In truth, we are seen as a small extension of American power rather than as an independent entity. I believe that non-nuclear German and Japan exercise more influence on the world stage than we do. Although it is fifty-six years since Harold McMillan made his “wind of change” speech, his perception is still to be fully appreciated within the British Establishment.
None of this is to suggest that British governments should not look to the security of the nation. That is a prime responsibility of government, although in the best of all possible worlds, peace would reign eternal. We have not reached that Utopia yet. As a result, Trident has to be judged on its own narrow merits. Is it the right military solution? Is it economically sound? But because of its terrifying potential as a weapon, there is a special ethical dimension.
The spurious reason given for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq was its alleged (and fallacious) possession of weapons of mass destruction. Yet here we have Trident aimed at taking out – i.e. obliterating – entire cities and their human populations. What makes that ethically acceptable, whilst Saddam’s imputed possession of WMD was not? Why is it acceptable for Israel to possess such weapons, whilst Iran must not have them?
We are now in a ‘Dr. Strangelove’ world where logic goes out of the window. I recall my first tour of the nuclear bunker below the Ministry of Defence. The general guiding me told me the bunker could withstand a direct thermonuclear blast. I remarked that I would sooner be up above with my family in such circumstances. He was staggered –
“But, Minister, you must be down here. Someone has to give the orders.”
The stated objective of Trident is to deter attack, by keeping the enemy guessing: will Britain use its nuclear weapons? In short, it creates and maintains a climate of fear. I have had that all of my life, and want no more of it. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once famously remarked:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Scrap Trident, and that fear of nuclear Armageddon goes with it.