Trident: An extremely expensive symbol

Gerry Holtham

Monday, 11 January 2016

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.

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  1. Posted by Matt Fawcett

    You miss the fact that the UK was one of a tiny minority to vote against all 4 international attempts at progressing a global ban on nukes in the UN last year. This is what the majority of countries want and would make the world genuinely safer.
    You also miss the fact that nuclear weapons make an interesting target for terrorism, given the number of British grannies that have halted convoys and entered missile silos we are lucky no-one with more nefarious intent has – so far.
    I’m also saddened – when we should be holding the government to account on public finance – that one seems to have updated the numbers. Cameron announced the submarines would cost £31-41 billion in November, that doesn’t include the warheads, missile hire or running cost. Even before that hike, Tory head of defence select committee Crispin Blunt put total costs at £167 billion. The renewal of trident is the largest public spending decision of this parliament and being part of a party with no sure policy on it is frankly embarrassing.

  2. Posted by Gerry Holtham

    P.S. Since this article appeared, David Clark has argued at the annual Fabian conference that Putin’s determination to re-establish a Russian sphere of influence in countries bordering the Russian Federation means we have to retain a nuclear capability in Europe. Mr Clark asserts that the Russians have let it be known that they would be prepared to use nuclear weapons if their interests in the area were threatened, for example by any attempt to restore the Crimea to Ukrainian control. Without our own nuclear weapons, we would be wide open to Russian blackmail.

    It pains me to disagree with David Clark, who has often been a voice of sense and perspicacity in Labour Party debate. But as a justification for Trident his argument is without merit. What is the nature of the Russian blackmail he foresees? It can only be a threat to use tactical nuclear weapons to ensure that challenges to Russian conventional forces cannot succeed. That Russia would threaten to nuke London in response to territorial quarrels in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus beggars belief. If NATO forces are engaged, Putin would have to similarly threaten other capitals, risking global armageddon. As I remarked before: Russia sells its oil and gas to Europe and most Russian oligarchs have some of their assets in London. If the nature of Russian blackmail is the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a military theatre, Trident is incredible as a deterrent. Would we really threaten to launch an ICBM strike on Moscow in response? Evidently not. The only credible nuclear deterrent in that situation would be a tactical threat to hit Russian formations on the same scale as the initial assault. In other words, the only useful nuclear deterrent would be low to medium yield weapons mounted on cruise missiles, or launched from aircraft with stand-off capability. The French currently have carrier-based aircraft with that capability.

    In seeking to defend Trident, Mr Clark has actually produced an argument for precisely the kind of nuclear down-scaling that I advocate.

  3. Posted by Gerry Holtham

    I acknowledge some of Mr Fawcett’s points though I am unclear how they bear on my conclusions. The cost of Trident and its replacement is astronomical. The ultimate cost depends on how long It remains in service. I see no need to argue over those numbers. The higher the cost, the greater the argument for a cheaper alternative, assuming you want to retain a nuclear capability at all.

  4. Posted by Mike Jackson

    I have always opposed nuclear weapons on moral grounds as they would destroy the human race if used and there is always the risk of an accident or more likely a misinterpretation of behaviour by two opposing nuclear powers which could lead to a first strike. If you have followed Deutschland 83 on Channel 4 (or campaigned against Pershing during that period as I did) you will know that some lunatic generals and politicians thought they could win a nuclear war.
    Having said that, this was a debate for another time not now. The House of Commons will vote to renew Trident. Even if Jeremy Corbyn persuades all Labour MPs to follow an anti-trident whip, the Tories have enough votes to see it through. We will not just lose the vote but we will lose public support. There is a consensus in the country that we need our own nuclear deterrent. Campaigning may shift opinion – there are powerful arguments – not just moral but on grounds of cost as well, to be made but we will not get a hearing. and we don’t have time. As with the Economy, we will be labelled as the party that let Britain down. We will suffer the legacy for years ahead.