In the looming Labour Party debate over Trident the loudest voices are likely to be twofold. On the one hand will be those taking a fundamental moralistic objection to any nuclear weapons; on the other hand will be those claiming that nuclear disarmament is electoral suicide because it will be viewed as indifference to national security.
Let us accept that there is a widespread wish in this country to maintain a nuclear weapons capability while other countries do so. While richer and more populous countries like Germany and Japan do not find nuclear arms necessary, some much poorer countries do and not all of them are politically stable. In an uncertain world, the idea of an independent nuclear deterrent has an understandable emotional appeal to much of the public.
However, even leaving fundamentalist moral objections to one side, it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to make a logical case for Trident.
The first difficulty is that the UK’s deterrent is either not independent, or only tenuously so. We depend on the United States for essential elements of the system and it is not clear that we have operational independence. Could we use it or threaten to use it without US permission? If we could not, it represents merely a marginal addition to the US nuclear arsenal. In which case what is the point of renewing it, even free, never mind at a cost to British tax payers of an initial £25 billion and several billion a year thereafter?
Let us pass over that issue; now we encounter a paradox. The point of nuclear weapons is deterrence. If deterrence fails, the weapons have failed and have no remaining military purpose. These are weapons designed to terrify and not to be used. But to terrify they have to have a target. They have to be directed against a state. They are useless against terrorists, for example, particularly suicidal terrorists or those with no substantial home base.
Which states are we trying to deter? In the Cold War it was the Soviet Union and China. Yet Russia and China are now no longer revolutionary countries, but conventional great powers embedded in the world economy. It seems that the Russians and Chinese between them own much of the best real estate in London so why would they want to nuke it? Russia might conceivably make a military incursion into Ukraine or the Baltic states; counter measures would require conventional forces dedicated to Nato. Yet we are shrinking the army in order to be able to afford Trident! No other even mildly hostile country currently has the capability to attack the UK with nuclear weapons and if they ever acquire it they are highly unlikely to retain any motive for doing so.
Of course, one cannot say there will never be any risk of such a thing but there is evidently more risk of a terrorist organisation acquiring a nuclear bomb and leaving it somewhere in a large suitcase. And if we are looking for risks to mitigate with expenditure of £25 billion, there are quite a few higher on the worry list than an old-school nuclear attack. Counter measures to cyber attacks or biological warfare would seem more pressing, not to mention flood defences against climate change.
It is clear therefore, that the wish to retain an independent nuclear deterrent is essentially symbolic. We think it justifies our place on the UN Security Council where all other permanent members have the bomb. It is practically useless and clearly anachronistic but it remains a potent status symbol.
Carl Jung observed that man must have his symbols. If we grant that, do we really need three submarines continuously patrolling the oceans of the world at fabulous expense? What about putting some bombs on updated air-launched cruise missiles and circulating them at random around RAF bases in the UK and abroad? Military specialists will complain that this is a low-tech solution that might not survive a first strike. But “might not” implies “might” and if we are talking about deterrence, “might” is good enough. The deterrent value, if ever needed, might be marginally less than Trident’s, but meanwhile the symbolic value would be greater – considering that this would be a more independent system. More importantly, it could surely be a good deal cheaper.