Thursday, 24 January 2013

If not Trident, then what else?

There is an ongoing debate in our country about whether we should maintain our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent through to 2042 by beginning a programme of replacing the British-made submarines that carry the American-made Trident missiles.

All three major parties in the United Kingdom currently agree that Britain should retain its nuclear deterrent with the main Labour and Conservative parties favouring a continuation of the existing arrangements whilst the smaller Liberal Democrat party (currently minor partners in the governing coalition) prefer a rethink and a switch to a potentially cheaper land or air based solution, claiming that the current system is over-the-top for future needs and the money could be better spent on conventional military assets.

There is no real discussion in mainstream politics though about whether Britain should even continue to possess weapons of mass destruction throughout the 21st Century, either from ethical or pragmatic perspectives. Despite this I'd like to initially briefly touch on these issues as my viewpoint is contrary to that of most liberals.

Does nuclear deterrence work?

Approximately two million British soldiers died in the first half of the 20th Century, large numbers of whom had been either conscripted against their will or indoctrinated by propaganda to fight varying foreign powers in a futile attempt to maintain the balance of power in the face of an increasingly industrialised approach to warfare. These conflicts inevitably cumulated in the creation of a terrifying weapon; the atomic bomb.

Since its advent in 1945, a mere three and a half thousand British military personnel have died in combat operations. Whilst each death is a tragedy I'd wager it's the smallest amount lost in any half-century period in British or English history. For every troop we lose today in Afghanistan we would have lost over 500 during the first half of the 20th Century and around 50 during the 19th Century.

Could this not be better explained by the spread of democracy, capitalism and international trade rather than nuclear weapons? Yes, it's fair to say that these things are what keeps world peace but people can only really think about what sort of government and economy they want when the fear of imminent invasion and/or death is alleviated  Do we really think post-War America, gripped by the Red Scare wouldn't have ended up at war with the Soviet Union and that we wouldn't have been devastated in the process? Nuclear deterrence is the umbrella under which prosperity and liberty has flourished.

It's not the Cold War any more

Perhaps we could unilaterally disarm today without there being any negative consequences. We could set the example for a nuclear-free world. Wouldn't that be nice? Unfortunately, weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, biological or chemical are an inevitability. The comparative advantage of holding them is simply too great for them not to be invented time and time again. If nuclear hadn't been an practical option then we'd likely be in an identical position but due to biological or chemical weapons.

And indeed, do we even have the right to tell other countries they shouldn't be allowed to guarantee the safety of their citizens through the ultimate defence? It is simply unfortunate that the strongest deterrent is the potential to utter destroy anyone who would become your enemy. However much Iran getting the bomb in in opposition to our foreign policy objectives, we all know in our heart-of-hearts that they do so primarily out of terror for Israel and the West.

There is also this strange argument that goes round that it's a waste to "buy things we'll never use." Those who argue this then surely do not accept the concept of deterrence at all, whether conventional or nuclear. Pretty much all British military spending is aimed to be a deterrent; it's incredibly unlikely we'll ever need 160 Eurofighter Typhoons but we purchased them "just in case" or more importantly to deter foreign powers from any negative actions. It's also a misnomer to say that we don't use our nuclear deterrent; the system is in constant use. Only if we suffer from a nuclear attack or invasion then the policy becomes a waste.

The only argument I buy against retaining nuclear weapons is an ideological one. As a liberal, I absolutely support people's free will. There is a reasonable logic that nuclear deterrence forces peace on to a world that otherwise might not want it by making the alternative unpalatable. Really we need to weigh up which is the bigger breach of liberties; a benign deterrent or the constant risk of war and the totalitarianism that follows.

What are our options?

So, if we're settled that it's worth retaining a nuclear deterrent then we should move on to discussing what form it should take.  First of all, let's talk about what Trident actually is. Trident is an American made intercontinental ballistic missile, tipped with a British made nuclear warhead, launched from a British made submarine.

The first of these submarines was launched in 1992 and has a 25-30 year lifespan and therefore will need to be replaced by 2022. This is not though what people mean when they talk about renewing Trident, they actually are questioning whether we should replace the Vanguard-class submarines that carry Trident or not. The actual Trident SLBMs are good until 2042 and will probably still be usable after then.

Those who want talk about replacing Trident, for whatever reason, sometimes suggest we should develop a new missile to be attached to our Typhoon and/or Tornado jets. This appears to be a somewhat foolish suggestion since it would mean discarding the Trident missiles which are viable for another 30+ years and additionally it would reduce our nuclear range to some 2,500 miles which basically only covers all of our European allies and Moscow. Obviously, we could refuel our planes mid-air but needing the bulk of your military infrastructure to be intact rather detracts from the desired effect.

Others seem to want us to scrap the Trident missiles and invest in our own land-based ICBM system. I've never really understood this proposal at all, it largely seems to revolve around not using "foreign" technology and creating more British jobs. Obviously as a classical liberal these ideas are quite alien to me and I'm not going to bother discussing them here. There are other problems though to us "going alone". A British made missile would most likely be ridiculously expensive to research, design, build and test and would probably never match, let alone exceed, the quality already found in the American Trident system. Trident has had 135 consecutive successful tests over the past 23 years; what other weapon system in history can boast that sort of success rate?

The only suggestion which is even slightly viable is that of simply installing our existing Trident missiles in military bases in the UK. This isn't an awful idea as they have a 7,000 mile range and therefore would cover most of the world (ironically, one of the five or so countries they couldn't hit is Argentina, the closest thing we have to an enemy). We do have plenty of overseas bases in which we could extend our coverage though so it was universal but do we really want to stick nukes on the Falklands or other Southern Atlantic/Pacific islands? Not only would this be unwise due to the vulnerability to foreign/terrorist attack of these areas but it would be in breach of various nuclear non-proliferation treaties that we've already signed.

What's so good about Trident?

The problem with all the above suggestions is that a foreign power might well figure out where we were keeping our warheads and neutralise them with either a conventional or nuclear attack. It might seem incredibly unlikely that anyone who chose to make an enemy of us would be able to take care of all our nukes before we could launch them and you are correct to think that but it misses two fundamental points.

Firstly, those of us who don't ever actually want to see another atomic bomb used in anger would want to give a British Prime Minister the time and space needed to make this incredibly difficult decision. Knowing your retaliatory option is vulnerable to destruction at any time could well lead to hasty and regrettable decisions. Secondly, the weaker your nuclear defence the more likely an enemy is to think it can be taken care of and therefore the higher the chance is that it will have to be used.

Let's remember, the objective is to never use our deterrent, obviously at the point we did the deterrent would become an actual weapon and the policy will have failed. It may seem like a perverse idea but the intention of us developing nuclear weapons is not to actually possess them as such, possessing them is merely the most convincing way of making somebody else think we have them and deterring them even considering the possibility of an attack.

How does our current system meet these stated requirements? We maintain a presence always at sea, in a submarine that's near impossible to detect. This gives us a clear option of "Second Strike" and therefore greatly increases the deterrent effect. There is a dangerous weakness in the current arrangements though; if the submarine currently on patrol is incapacitated for some reason then we're effectively temporarily vulnerable, although only as vulnerable as if we didn't have an underwater capacity to start with.

So why is anyone against Trident?

There's only two real groups who are strongly opposed to Trident; liberals and the military. Many liberals these days argue for maintaining a deterrent but not Trident, citing firstly its cost and secondly that our agenda has changed. Cost would would be a fine argument if Trident was expensive but it's not. The total amount we spend runs to some £3bn/year or about 0.2% of GDP. Yes, that money could be spent elsewhere but why not hypothetically cut it from the actual military budget? Pound for pound Trident keeps us much safer than the conventional military ever could. We'll spend some £100bn over the next 30 years on Trident but the total bill for the conventional military will cost us well in excess of £1tn (or roughly the same as our current total debt). If we wanted to cut military expenditure without affecting troops in Afghanistan, etc. we could do so by mothballing/reselling the bulk of our Eurofighters which will almost certainly never see real combat.

I believe it's fair to say that most liberals who want a "cheaper alternative" really don't want us to have a genuine deterrent at all and whilst I personally sympathise with their position recent history suggests this might be a little hasty. If you don't believe in a nuclear deterrent say so, don't try to sideline and weaken our existing deterrent.

The other group who come out opposed to Trident are the military themselves. For some reason we always seem to listen to our military commanders on policy matters but let's remember that they are there to manage defence in case of an attack, not prevent that attack ever occurring  After all, the military and our nuclear deterrent are in direct competition; a successful nuclear policy leads to a fall in their spending. Military chiefs are responsible foremost for ensuring the budgets for their own departments and ensuring that their subordinates get to do the one thing in life that they signed up to do; fight wars.