The Trident Nuclear Debate

Josh Dodd discusses the government’s proposals to replace Britain’s nuclear deterrent, the Trident submarine force, and whether such a deterrent really has a role in the twenty-first century.

The Trident II (D5) is a submarine-launched missile, armed with about three nuclear warheads. Their destructive power is estimated as that of eight Hiroshimas. The details of the British nuclear armament were only finalised in 1998, with Labour’s Strategic Defence Review. The Trident system was planned to be in service at least until 2024. So why is this a hot issue all of a sudden?

Any programme to develop replacements for the Trident submarines will be a lengthy one. Tony Blair recently announced that a white paper will report on the issue in December and, after a three month consultation, MPs will be voting. Naturally, this will not be a free vote for Labour MPs.

HMS Vanguard
HMS Vanguard – one of Britain’s nuclear submarines equipped with Tident D5 missiles at Faslane naval base

Gordon Brown, in stark contrast to his usually cautious fiscal policy, has publicly backed the most expensive option available: a full replacement for the Trident submarine force – warning against compromising on the British nuclear deterrent. But the truth is that this is estimated to cost anything up to £40 billion over its lifetime. The important question, then, is are we really getting value for money here? £40 billion is an awful lot of cash to be spending: it is £2billion more than this year’s total defence budget or, to put it in a different light, almost half an NHS.

Frustratingly though, the answer is that a Trident replacement is a poor way to spend British tax money. The very notion of a nuclear deterrent is a hang-over from a bygone era – one of towering superpowers and diametrically opposed, utterly incompatible ideologies across continents. During the Cold War, a nuclear deterrent was seen as vital – theories of Mutually Assured Destruction bounced alongside flashpoints that came scarily close to a full-scale war.

But the Cold War is long over and the world is a markedly different place. There is no USSR-esque bloc of territories that we can aim our guns at anymore.

The threat now, as our Prime Minister spends so much time telling us, is from those ambiguous and elusive terrorists. If, God forbid, a small cell of perhaps ten people manage to detonate a dirty bomb in a city centre, aginst whom should we retaliate? Whom should we bomb into submission?

What else can £40billion buy then? Quite a lot, really. Perhaps the best way to decide how to use this money is by examining national threats. Terrorism, yes. But I hardly think that the 7/7 bombers had second thoughts when they considered the British Trident submarine patrolling the ocean. Surely an even more compelling danger is that of climate change – this much money would help Britain to tackle the problem and mitigate economic fallout as far as possible. I’m sure that the fight against terror could use more resources, if security is your thing. There is only so much the intelligence forces can do on their current budget. There are plenty of better, more cost-effective ways to spend this cash.

It is not inconceivable to rid Britain of nuclear weaponry. Indeed, Labour have already started such a programme with the Strategic Defence Review. The numbers of warheads maintained was dropped by a third to 200; nuclear submarines were limited to 48 warheads, from 96 (though due to technological advances, this was actually a 50% increase on the Trident predecessor); and maintenance of other types of nuclear delivery systems, such as “free-fall” aircraft weaponry, was discontinued.

True, this is a moderate reduction, but even this sadly strikes Britain out ahead of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council – the other four designated Nuclear Weapon States on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In fact, this is the very treaty that obliges us to reduce our nuclear holdings. The three pillars of the Non-Proliferation Treaty include disarmament. Of course, none of the Nuclear Weapon States have done any such thing – any such discussion over the last three decades has been shelved on one pretext or another.

What would happen to Britain if she were to shed her nuclear capabilities? Would she be endlessly bombarded with nukes from manifold enemy states? Would she be vulnerable to invasion? Well, the 186 UN-recognised, non-nuclear countries seem to get by okay. Maybe if we can step out in front of the pack by disarming our nuclear capabilities, we can start leading the world towards a more peaceful future. Britain may not be a military superpower, but she could be a moral one.

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