HERE ARE A FEW first thoughts on Labour’s upcoming defence review – or rather the Trident bit of it. I don’t expect anyone to take much notice – most of the people involved seem to have held entrenched views for at least thirty-five years. You might want to put on some 80s music while reading this. If you’re old enough, it might make you feel young again.
Trident (and I mean here Trident with nuclear warheads, not the “I can’t believe it’s not Trident” version without them) is not essentially useless. It could be used, perhaps in some circumstances it would be used. So, it has uses. But Trident as a defence mechanism is, literally, useless. It’s value as a defence lies purely in it not being used.
There are no conceivable circumstances in which we could use Trident and remain “defended”. I find it impossible to imagine a British prime minister firing a Trident missile at a non-nuclear target. I tried hard to conjure up the image of some deranged figure in Downing Street, presumably drunk and egged on by a latter-day Dr Strangelove, moving his or her quivering finger towards the “button” (yes, I know there isn’t really a button) to fire a 4.8 megaton nuclear bomb at some god-forsaken desert town. But I just can’t see it. Can you?
If Trident is ever going to be used it would be either in retaliation for a nuclear attack on Britain which has already taken place or as a pre-emptive first strike against someone who might attack us with nuclear weapons. In both cases, we would have lost. In the first case, there should be no need to explain why. In the second, we have assume that anyone with nuclear weapons who is nasty enough to be worth nuking would retaliate with a nuclear strike against us. We end up with the same result. In either scenario, Trident would have failed to defend us.
Trident has no military use — it cannot be used in any military situation to further any military objective. Defence chiefs like the prestige Trident brings but I wonder how many would resist a credible promise to spend the entire cost (now estimated at £167bn) – or even half of it – on their conventional forces. Trident’s main value is diplomatic and “pre-military”: that it could defend us, not by being used, but by deterring someone from attacking us, whether or not they had nuclear weapons.
The deterrent argument has changed since I used to have these arguments in pubs in the 1980s (when I shifted from being a unilateralist to being a warmongering US lackey, apparently), when it was all about a complex game of bluff and counter bluff with the Soviet Union – a game which, like death itself, could drive you mad if you thought about it too much. Now, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: is there anyone out there who is likely to behave differently towards us because we have Trident from how they would behave if we didn’t?
Trident did not deter al-Qaeda from attacking us. It’s hard to believe that the reason Islamic State/Daesh have not yet attacked Britain is because we have Trident submarines lurking in the ocean somewhere (France is also a nuclear power after all). Kim Jong- un? Really? Does he even know where Britain is? The theory of deterrence rests on a degree of rational self-interest on the part of your opponent – it doesn’t apply to madmen.
There is also the argument that Trident is needed to protect us against future threats we don’t yet know about – Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns”. The problem with this is that, if these threats are genuinely “unknown”, how do we know that Trident is the best or even a good way of protecting ourselves against them? We might just as well double the size of the army, build a fifty-foot wall around Britain or fill the channel tunnel with cement on the grounds that it might protect us against something.
Perhaps we think we can discern the faint outlines of these potential threats (the shadows of Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”). What if China or Russia turn nasty? What if a relatively sophisticated state with a slightly unhinged leadership (Iran?) decides to have a pop at us, or tries to hold us to ransom? The problem here is that what evidence we have already points to Trident being useless in these situations. You might well think China and Russia are already quite nasty: Trident (or the French nuclear deterrent) didn’t stop Putin from annexing Crimea, destabilising our “ally” Ukraine or unleashing radioactive weapons on the streets of London in 2006. And the Iranian leadership has been slightly unhinged for most of my lifetime. Where is the evidence that Iran has ever posed a significant threat to Britain, or that the behaviour of the Iranian leadership has been changed one iota by the existence of Britain’s four Trident submarines? In these circumstances, Trident is, at best, a very over-priced insurance policy against a very remote risk – like paying thousands of pounds a year to insure yourself against a meteor strike. (Yes, it could happen, the results would be catastrophic, but, really, are you going to bother?)
The best argument for Trident is one its supporters are obviously reluctant to put forward. It’s that Trident is simply about showing off, in a world where showing off is, like it or lump it, important. Possession of a big fat nuclear weapons system is like a ticket to the VIP enclosure – it gets you noticed, it impresses people, it makes them think you must be a very important country indeed. It’s no coincidence that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are the world’s five oldest nuclear powers. No country that has acquired nuclear weapons has ever been willing to give them up. Viewed this way, Trident is a big fat fee we pay (much of it to the Americans) for a seat at the top table. It’s about diplomacy, not military defence.
I think it’s this loss of diplomatic face that Trident supporters really fear. And they may be right – diplomacy is an important component of defence, perhaps the most important part. But the question is whether this diplomatic golden ticket is really worth it, or whether we can do something better with a quarter of a trillion dollars.
My final thought is that if we do need a nuclear deterrent, why does it have to be Trident? Could we not develop our own fully independent system, as the French have managed to do? That would create even more jobs in the UK and give a welcome boost to our science and engineering sector. It might be on a smaller scale than Trident, but I reckon no one likes being nuked, by a Trident submarine or anything else.
All of this assumes, of course, that the defence review is looking for the right defence strategy for the country, not just the right one for the Labour Party – which may be a different question entirely.