The case for Trident – answering common arguments against renewing Britain’s nuclear weapons capability and the Royal Navy’s successor submarines.
In 2016 Parliament approved the construction of 4 replacement of ‘Successor’ ballistic missile submarines for the Royal Navy. Despite majority public support, a very vocal minority opposes British nuclear weapons and the subject continues to be hotly debated.
The current Vanguard class submarines, built during the 1990s need to be replaced in order to safely and reliably maintain deterrent patrols. This project includes the design and manufacture of a new warhead but is not an upgrade in nuclear capability. The US-made Trident II D5 missile is the delivery vehicle for British-made nuclear warheads carried aboard British-built and manned submarines. In this piece, we detail and then counter the classic anti-Trident arguments. (It should be noted that in the context of this discussion “Trident” is used as shorthand for British nuclear weapons; the submarines, missiles, warheads and supporting infrastructure.)
“Trident is a waste because it has never been used”
In reality our nuclear deterrent is in use every day although obviously the level of nuclear threat to Britain has risen and fallen during different eras. In the post-Cold War 1990s, the deterrent may have seemed less relevant but Trident was sensibly maintained. As the last 5 years have demonstrated, events can change quickly and unpredictably. There are now more nuclear-armed nations than at the end of the Cold War with many other nations aspiring to own them. Some nuclear powers such as India, Pakistan and Israel are unlikely adversaries, but North Korea, Iran (still attempting to build nuclear weapons) and most importantly, Russia are a threat.
The benefit of a deterrent, or indeed proving “Why things don’t happen” can be a hard case to make. Without a thorough examination of the issues, many critics make the mistaken assumption that if we abandon Trident there would be no consequences. What is certain is that the nuclear balance, to which the UK has contributed, has prevented major world conflict since WWII. Across Europe are the graves of thousands who have died in a depressingly regular cycle of war and conflict since recorded history began. The scale of war grew pretty steadily until 1945 when the existence of nuclear weapons brought a sudden end to conflict in Western Europe. The frightening balance of mutually assured destruction worked throughout the great tensions of the Cold War, nuclear weapons were not used and have remained unused.
Although the majority of home owners will never experience a catastrophic fire that destroys their house, almost everyone agrees it is prudent to pay a small part of your income in insurance premiums that provide reassurance against disaster.
“Trident is an outdated weapon of the Cold War which is over”
UK involvement in counter insurgency conflicts in Iraq and Afghan has given birth to the dangerous fallacy, that the era of state-on-state conflict is over. The new visionaries suggest we should prepare lightweight ‘agile’ forces, equipped with drones and robots purely for asymmetric and cyber conflicts with terrorists and ‘non-state actors’. This vision of future warfare has little use for nuclear weapons or even conventional force structures. Unfortunately, this ignores the reality that Russia, China and other states are spending heavily on both conventional and nuclear forces. While the unconventional conflicts in the Middle East have all the headlines and cannot be ignored, UK politicians and media pay far less attention to the large-scale modernisation of Russia’s forces. Owner of the world’s largest stock of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, Russia is flexing its military might in ways unseen since the Soviet era, including frequent incursions close to UK waters and airspace. Putin has casually discussed the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Syria and threatened Denmark’s warships with nuclear attack, should it join the NATO missile defence shield. It’s an uncomfortable truth that another kind of Cold War is already underway.
“Trident can’t protect us against terrorism”
Absolutely right. Trident has a single purpose and that is as a deterrent against other nuclear-armed states. It is a complete ‘red herring’ to suggest we should abandon Trident because it is cannot protect us from other threats that it was not designed to counter. To take the funding for Trident to spend on anti-terrorism measures would be completely disproportionate. Although terrorism remains a serious domestic threat, it is often over-played by media and politicians. Statistically a tiny number of people will be killed or injured in the UK by acts of terrorism, whereas the threat of war from another state risks the entire population and way of life.
We do not get rid of the antidote to one disease because it cannot protect us from another type of disease.
“Trident will cost £100Bn, think of all the hospitals we could build instead”
The “£100 Billion cost of Trident” figure carelessly banded about by the CND and the SNP is a shabby propaganda tactic designed to make the cost sound disproportionately large. £100 Billion is a very rough estimate of the entire 30-year lifetime cost of the project. Other govt expenditure is rarely discussed in this way. No one talks terms of the £5 Trillion NHS or the £7 Trillion welfare bill we face if we attempted to estimate their cost over the next 30 yrs. A more rational way to consider the cost, is that our national deterrent will amount to around 0.13 per cent of total government spending. The upfront costs of building the replacement submarines will be around £40Bn, spread over 10 years, and at its peak, never more than 10% of the defence budget, averaging 6% of defence spending overall. Considering that we insure ourselves against nuclear destruction, the Trident programme while not cheap, represents very good value for money.
Scottish CND operate under the “bairns not bombs” banner, the fallacious implication being we have to choose between our children’s future or unwanted weapons. Not only does Trident help protect our children from the terrible threat of nuclear war, but the money saved by decommissioning would make relatively small impact on the public finances. The SNP like to give the false impression that cancelling Trident could solve Scottish economic problems. Even if we were daft enough to give up our nuclear weapons, the immediate decommissioning cost of our extensive nuclear infrastructure would be at least £10Bn. That’s before even considering the economic impact of several thousand job losses, with Scotland hardest hit. Independent analysts think it could be more than a decade before the UK could see any net savings from the removal of Trident.
“Trident is about big profits for arms manufacturers”
If we object on these grounds, we should close down the NHS because pharmaceutical corporations make big profits from healthcare. Complex construction projects can only be delivered by large corporations and despite their many faults, the private sector and its accompanying profit motive remain the only realistic option. There is no question that the UK’s dominant defence contractor, BAE Systems will make profits from the Trident program and has a very mixed track record on delivering best value for the taxpayer. Corporate consolidation in the defence sector leaves the UK with no competing supplier for its submarines.
We don’t have nuclear weapons in order to create employment but, as a major benefit, the deterrent supports 1,200 companies of all sizes in the supply chain and at least 13,000 highly skilled civilian jobs across the UK. It remains a fantasy of anti-Trident campaigners that these jobs could be easily converted to supposedly more positive purposes. Construction of a nuclear submarine is technically more demanding than building a space shuttle and involves workers with highly specialised skills that are not easily transferred or re-generated. Assuming we could persuade the thousands that support our nuclear capability to re-train and re-locate, we would then have to spend vast sums on subsidising new or existing industries to employ them. It may be attractive to beat our swords into ploughshares but it would be a lengthy and costly process, damaging to our capacity to defend ourselves in inevitable future conflicts.
“Abandoning Trident would set a good example and allow a ‘reset’ of global politics”
British unilateral disarmament might engender some short-term PR benefit but in the hard-headed strategic calculations made by most nations, it would simply be seen as weakness and possibly an opportunity to exploit. It would be like to deciding to get rid of the police force in the hope it would inspire criminals to give up crime. Unilateralists are entirely unable to name even one other nation that would be willing to rid itself of nuclear weapons in response to UK disarmament. This realpolitik is an inconvenient truth for idealists who hope for a better world but have failed to study world history. Frustrating and depressing it may be, but the lesson from our past is that the best hope for peace is regular international negotiation and dialogue backed by credible armed deterrence.
Tread carefully but carry a big stick.
International attempts to ban land mines, chemical weapons and cluster bombs have had patchy success. (Eg. Russia refused to sign the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and is currently dropping them all over Syria.) There is always someone ready to break the rules for advantage and the power of nuclear weapons makes their possession even more enticing for those with scant regard for international law. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons when given flimsy “security guarantees” by the US and Europe. It is highly doubtful that Russia would have contemplated invading a nuclear-armed Ukraine. This also demonstrates how promises made by other nations about your defence can prove fatally unreliable.
“Trident is immoral”
The potential scale and horror of nuclear war has many well-meaning people performing intellectual contortions in an attempt to put nuclear weapons in a different ‘moral’ category to conventional weapons. Dealing with all forms of war is always an exercise in ‘least appalling’ choices. An example is the unpalatable truth that more lives were saved by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, than the number of civilians killed in those cities. Many anti-Trident campaigners cite the suffering of the Japanese survivors as their inspiration. They are forgetting the slaughter of other civilians and allied soldiers by the Japanese army that would have continued unchecked without the atomic bomb.
Nuclear weapons are undoubtedly the ultimate expression of the dark heart of mankind and the arguments against possession have great emotional resonance. Unfortunately, we cannot un-invent nuclear weapons, instead, we must rationally face up to dealing with them. The idea that humanity is on a path towards entirely peaceful coexistence and a world without weapons is sadly more fanciful now than ever.
Given that nuclear bombs brought an early end to WWII and the prevention of a world-wide conflict since, they have in fact saved millions of lives and might claim more moral legitimacy than any other.
Attempts to give ‘moral value’ to inanimate objects are fraught with problems anyway and it is clearly the motivations and actions of the people who use them that really matter. Since men began to fight each other with clubs, even simple objects used as weapons could be seen as ‘immoral’. The machine gun is responsible for by far the most violent human deaths. CND might actually be wasting marginally less time by conducting a campaign to ‘outlaw the automatic weapon’ which continues to kill hundreds around the world on a daily basis.
“Trident is illegal and breaches international laws and treaties”
Over time the UK has reduced to an ‘absolute minimum’ strategic deterrent and now possess just 160 usable warheads and is fully compliant with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unlike the 4 other NPT states (US, France, Russia and China) the UK now has no alternative method of delivering nuclear weapons beside the submarine-based deterrent. The NPT actually aspires to eliminate nuclear weapons and this laudable, if impossible aim remains. Possession of nuclear (and conventional weapons) gives Britain bargaining power in arms reduction efforts. An unarmed Britain would have no influence in future efforts to contain nuclear proliferation around the world.
Targeting population centres and every living thing in them is obviously abhorrent. Deliberately targeting non-combatants is illegal under international law, therefore use of Trident against cities would be illegal. However, the possession and ongoing like-for-like replacement of the weapon is not. It is a weapon of last resort, only to be used after the UK has been attacked and international law already grossly breached. Whether the Prime Minister at the time would actually retaliate is up to the individual, but the key point is to make a potential aggressor believe it is a possibility, thus preventing the use of nuclear weapons in the first place.
“If we got rid of Trident we could increase our conventional forces”
Even if we had vastly stronger conventional forces than the inadequate levels we have today, it could never compensate for the disadvantage we would have as a non-nuclear state facing conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary. We could be subject to nuclear blackmail and in conflict with a nuclear power, would have little option but to declare neutrality and hope for the best, or rely on the nuclear umbrella provided by the US or France. As an island nation, we are more difficult to defeat by conventional means than European states that could be over-run by non-nuclear forces. An aggressor might therefore be more tempted to threaten us with nuclear weapons. The best way to defend the UK mainland is by retaining to ability to meet a nuclear threat in equal measure.
It is not the cost of Trident that is to blame for the parlous state of our conventional forces. It is the steep decline of all defence funding since 1990, together with gross mismanagement of the defence planning and procurement process. In the late 1980s when defence spending was around 4.5% of GDP, the original Trident project (to replace Polaris) was proportionally far less significant than the current Successor project with just 2% (or less) of GDP now being allocated for defence.
The failure to properly fund our conventional forces is a scandal, but not a sound reason in itself to axe Trident.
The majority of those who are against nuclear weapons also tend to have limited enthusiasm for defence spending in general. Cost is the most frequently used argument deployed against Trident, with the implication that we could divert the savings to healthcare, social services, education etc. If these voices were to win the day and the UK nuclear capability was dispensed with, it is fanciful to believe that the MoD would be allowed to keep much the money that could eventually be saved for conventional defence. Although illusory, this “peace dividend” would simply be too tempting a honeypot for politicians who have already failed to make a strong enough case for strengthening our conventional forces.
“The UK deterrent is not independent, we need US permission to use it”
This is factually incorrect, the UK deterrent is independent and there is no hidden ‘back door’ option for the US to disable it. In the very unlikely event that our foreign policy aims were so divergent, the Prime Minister still has the ability to launch without permission or any reliance on the US. It is correct that the US could withdraw technical assistance and maintenance support for the missiles which would eventually render the UK deterrent inoperable after several months. Amateurish claims that the US could just “switch off the Global Positioning System (GPS)” which guides the missiles is nonsense. The submarines and missiles use celestial and inertial guidance systems that require no outside inputs to navigate accurately.
There is very significant value in an independent deterrent as it demonstrates to the US we are willing to pay for our own defence and not rely entirely on their benevolence. It also provides reassurance to other European NATO nations because the UK deterrent is a declared NATO asset. In the event that the UK was subject to nuclear blackmail or attack it gives the US the option not to go nuclear, thus possibly avoiding global nuclear conflagration. It backs up our position as one of the 5 permanent members of the UN security council that gives us a platform to influence events for good.
“Supporters of Trident are hawks, warmongers or don’t appreciate what nuclear war would mean”
Many so-called ‘peace campaigners’ arrogantly assume they possess the moral high ground and that those supporting Trident are indifferent to the possibility of nuclear war or are ignorant of its horror. The opposite is true, many generations of RN submariners have conducted deterrent patrols at great personal sacrifice to themselves and their families, dedicating their lives to keeping the peace. Every sailor departing on patrol is fully aware of the consequences of a nuclear exchange and fervently hope they will never have to press the button, knowing they would return to a nation in ashes with their families gone. By doing their duty they actively help reduce that possibility, making it less likely nuclear conflict will occur. While the protestors have been shouting about peace, the Royal Navy has actually been keeping the peace with dignity and professionalism.
Nuclear weapons have created long term-peace and democracy resulting in unparalleled prosperity in Europe and much of the world. Ironically it is the nuclear umbrella that has allowed a pampered generation to grow up, largely shielded from the horrible reality of conventional war and able to indulge their unilateralist views. Without the nuclear balance, we would either be living under totalitarian domination or in a continuous cycle of war and conflict, more familiar to older generations who instinctively understood our need for strong defence.