Opinion: A weapon we could use?

When Nick Clegg made the case for scrapping Trident in Thursday’s debate, his case was that it was too expensive, and designed for a threat that no longer exists. And the predictable response was to accuse Nick of being soft on defence. But there are more fundamental problems with the type of defence offered by Trident.

Trident provides “defence” only in a very limited sense. It’s actually just a “deterrent”. It can’t shoot down incoming missiles or turn back advancing enemy armies. Its point is to dissuade an enemy from attacking us in the first place because, we claim, we will retaliate. Given the type of retaliation involved- destroying entire cities – it’s only likely that Trident would be used when an enemy state had already launched nuclear missiles at cities in Britain. And by this time it would be too late for Trident to offer any direct protection to British people.

Trident’s only purpose, by this point, would be retaliation. And the claim which justifies the existence of Trident is that, in this situation, our political leaders would order a counter-attack as an act of cold-blooded revenge.

So Trident fulfils its purpose only if our political leaders can credibly claim that, under these circumstances, they would order the murder of millions of civilians overseas, increasing the carnage in a war which was already all but lost, and increasing the likelihood that the war escalated to the point where all life on earth was extinguished.

Any humane person would hope that, on receiving the instruction to launch, the captain of the Trident submarine would refuse; that he would say “Our purpose was deterrence, and it has failed”, give the order to abandon ship, and with a solemn salute send his vessel and its weapons to the bottom of the sea.

But any politician wanting to be Prime Minister, and wanting to continue the Trident programme, must be able to convince us that they would be prepared to use it. Otherwise there’s no point in having it at all, and we could spend that money on something more useful.

So, Messrs Cameron and Brown, which is it to be? Are you ready to order the murder of millions of people, or can we keep our £100bn?

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49 Comments

  • Why I'm a Tory 22nd Apr '10 - 11:42am

    This article explains effortlessly why I’ve always voted Conservative, and probably will. If you get your STV, my second choice party would be Labour.

    Basically your point is that we shouldn’t retaliate if attacked. Brilliant! Why not get in the tardis and tell Winston Churchill he was wrong?

    Doubt the society we now live in would be particularly ‘liberal’ or ‘democratic’!

  • I seem to remember Trident is linked to the Pentagon and could only be used with American approval.

  • Why I am a Tory
    Are we all 51st Staters now?
    I must say I would rather work for an American than a Tory.

  • @ Why I’m a Tory.

    Winston Churchill had to defend he had no deterrent because the pre war Tory Government had cut cut and cut defence spending. We entered the war with Germany with an outdated Navy and an ill equiped Army and a small but reasonable modern airforce. The point that Malcom Wood is making is that if we are attacked with Nuclear weapons our deterrent would have failed. Would it not be better with the current threat to ensure we have a well equiped Army, Air Force and Navy, which we can only afford if we abandon Trident. Nick is not saying that we should have no Nuclear deterrent only that we should look for a cheaper alternative.

  • “Basically your point is that we shouldn’t retaliate if attacked. Brilliant!”

    I think his point is rather that killing countless civilians in response to an act of a foreign government doesn’t even amount to retaliation.

    I suspect that distinction is way too subtle for your average Daily Mail-reading mouth-breather though.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 22nd Apr '10 - 12:09pm

    I think the article above is rather silly, as are some of the comments arguing the opposite case.

    Surely the point, in a nutshell, is that Trident was designed specifically to be able to penetrate the anti-missile defences of the major Soviet cities.

    The question is – is it still a necessity for the UK to be able to do that, and do it independently? Surely the answer is “No”.

  • I know that manyConservatives find discussions of this kind immensely intellectually challenging but ‘Why I am a Tory’s’ claim that:

    “This article explains effortlessly why I’ve always voted Conservative, and probably will.”

    is lamentable.

    I am sure that it wasn’t written effortlessly. Even those who disagree with it and read it carefully must appreciate that it has been written thoughtfully.

    MAD – the promise of mutual annhilation in an exchange of nuclear weapons – is an extraordinarily difficult military doctrine that relies on notions underpinned by game theory that none of its true adherents believe will every be tested.

    The dilemmas associated with managing our national defence and retaining a nuclear strike capability as well as a military that is capable of dealing with conventional conflicts are head achingly difficult.

    Intelligent Conservatives (and I do think there are some), Liberals and Socialists who want to grapple seriously with the issues really have to do better that ‘Why I am a Tory’.

  • Alex
    Does Britain still belong to NATO?
    Anyway I feel sure the Americans would deploy their nuclear weapons
    that are on British soil without the need to ask us first.

  • Why I'm a Tory 22nd Apr '10 - 12:19pm

    @iainm, no I don’t read the Daily Mail, though I hear its front page today is interesting…

    The logic, from my perspective, is that we need to defend ourself if attacked. If Iran were to attack us with nuclear weapons, any army, navy or air force would be staggeringly useless as they could have virtually destroyed us with nuclear weapons by the time our troops got anywhere near their soil.

    Any cheaper option is likely to be heavily dependent on co-operation with either the EU or USA. Whilst we often agree with both there are scenarios where we haven’t agreed, and may not in the future – we need protection of our own.

    If we were attacked we would have the option of retaliating or doing nothing. Innocent civilians will be killed – that’s the nature of war. I very much hope it will never come to that, but leaving our shores defenceless from a number of rogue nations with foul governments isn’t something a responsible administration would bring about.

  • Mike Falchikov 22nd Apr '10 - 12:28pm

    Presumably nobody is talking about nuclear missiles as first-strike weapons – well,nobody except perhaps
    Kim-Jong Il and a few Taliban nutters who would like to get their hands on some nuclear material for home-made bombs. Suicide-bomber nutters are the only real threat in this way and since we can’t pre-emptively nuke them,
    they have to be defeated by good intelligence and conventional military means. So why do we need our own
    nuclear arsenal, especially when were trying to persuade other countries not to have them. (NB Ukraine has
    recently given up some embryonic nuclear material left over from the Soviet Union). There are also many countries
    who play a full role in Nato etc. who don’t seem to feel the need for a nuclear arsenal – are the Dutch, the Danes,
    the Canadians, or indeed the Germans begging their governments to acquire nuclear weapons? I don/t think so.

  • A few years ago, I spoke to Tom King, former Tory defence secretary and now Lord King, and he said was against renewing Trident. I guess he’s on the record saying it somewhere. (I notice he also recently welcomed the idea of our military working more closely with the French.)

    Clegg’s got anti-Trident military figures in his pocket for tonight; maybe he can hammer Cameron with anti-Trident Tories, too.

  • Alex
    1. Nuclear umbrella.
    Mr. Obama “We are going to want to make sure that we can continue
    to move towards less emphasis on nuclear weapons”.
    2. We no longer have complete control of defence* if a foreign power
    can use our soil as it wishes.
    *defense- to be more accurate
    Seamus
    You haven’t bought any Chinese military equipment lately have you?

  • Surely the defence of the trident policy SHOULD be that it doesn’t leave us without a detterant in amy plausible scenario in any case ?

    Should Iran (say) nuke London… The RAF are more than capable of retaliating with cruise nukes.

    The purpose of trident is NOT to retaliate for any old attack but ONLY against an utterly overwhelming first strike. Anything other than this would still leave us with a cruise retaliatory capacity.

    Given that such a massive first strike would also, of neccessity kill tens of thousands of us troops thier sub launched capacity indemnified us against this…. And naval/air launched nukes indemnify us against any smaller attack.

    Thus the system is largely redundant and not worth the price tag. Giving up trident is NOT surrendering all capacity to retaliate, and arguing it as such is likely to be more damaging to the LD case than the far more honest counter argument that we HAVE a retaliatory capacity against all reasonable threats with or without the trident white elephant.

  • Nick Worrow 22nd Apr '10 - 2:07pm

    Sorry…. I should Point out the nick above is me, not the artcles author AND that cruise delivered nukes would defend us as well against a conventional attack as Trident. I don’t see anyone in a rush to invade Israel, Pakistan or India despite their nukes (as ours would be without triident) not being sub mounted.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Apr '10 - 2:14pm

    There are many ways in which this country could be brought to its knees. The recent volcano thing has shown another huge dependency problem. OK, now this one seems to be solved. But look at the cost. And the lack of preparation for it. Maybe the Russians didn’t need to launch nukes at us, just find a way of grounding our air force by filling our skies with ash. Did with have plans for that? Have we got plans for something really big volcanic happening? Or a myriad other things which could show up just how dangerous it is to live on a small island which can’t feed itself and has a complex infrastructure dependent on supplies from unstable regions?

    It seemed to me a long time ago, when this was still something we were arguing about in the days when it was a big part of Liberal-SDP disagreement, that there was something a bit silly about spending huge amounts of money on contingency plans for the unlikely event that the Russians marched in with snow on their boots, but nothing at all on other unlikely but devastating possibilities.

    So it is with Trident. We have to be realistic and think about what circumstances we would ever want to use it. And whether those circumstances are any more likely than so many other things we spend nothing like as much money on protecting ourselves against. And whether the line that keeping it puts out “To be an important country, you have to have nukes” is working to push other countries to develop nukes and those countries less stable than us so more likely to end up with the nukes in the hands of madmen.

  • Tom King on Jan 21, 2010: “Looking at the recent controversy that has broken out in the Ministry of Defence as regards the different armed services, I was very struck by its comment that there is a marked reluctance to recognise that the Cold War ended in 1989. If that is true as regards choice of weapons, it is certainly true in the nuclear field. It is sobering to think that, as we sit here today, between the United States and Russia there 2,000 nuclear weapons on high alert. Nothing seems less relevant to the world situation than that there should be such a nuclear capability on high alert at this time.”
    and
    “I strongly support … the initiatives that should be taken by the nuclear weapons states at this time for major reductions.”

  • Douglas McLellan 22nd Apr '10 - 2:18pm

    I agree with the authors sentiment if not all of his argument. Those who want to have the most of amount of civilian killing power as possible only do so because they think it gives the UK some kind boost in the canjones department at international gatherings. Thats it. It is nothing to do with deterrence in the modern world.

    The UK is not at risk from nuclear attack from any state. Now or in the future. We are at risk from terrorists gaining nuclear capability and detonating a bomb in the UK. But terrorists don’t thing about MAD in anyway (spy films aside). We are also at risk from economic actions that can damage our economy. Russia can turn off Europes power very quickly – and action that is much less risky that launching a big missile. China has enough financial reserves to both stop supplying our markets with its cheap goods and wrecking the UK Pound exchange rate with most other currencies.

    France could attack but the fallout alone would make it too dangerous. As for Iran – in what fantasy world would they actually develop the capability and choose to target the UK first? If there were even a hint of Iran being able to attack another country with a nuclear weapon then Israel and the US would remove that capability in an instant.

    Whilst ‘Why I vote Tory’ is pleasuring himself about Dave Camerons nuclear war dreams against China, the rest of us need to think clearly about what these weapons represent and what would actually do with them. There are no peoples on earth who I would want to launch a nuclear weapon at, even if that state attacked us. That is the feeling that existed following the WWII bombing of Dresden and would still exists today.

    I shall leave the final word to US nuclear expert Richard Garwin who said that the plans to replace Trident II “premature and wasteful”

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Apr '10 - 2:21pm

    Why I’m a Tory

    This article explains effortlessly why I’ve always voted Conservative,

    Ah yes, the party which burnt away our North Sea gas. And privatised our power supply industry, so that foreigners could and have bought it up. And, in effect, since we now rely on Russia for our gas to keep us going with energy, made a big thing about standing up as the “Iron Lady” againstt hem, while in reality opening the back door to them and putting out a welcome map and the sign “Please march in”.

  • Nick
    The RAF does not have cruise nukes.

  • Manfarang, would it cost us 80bln to make or buy some?

  • James S
    I don’t know. I’m not in that market.

  • The whole point of having Trident (and i’m a fervent believer in it) is that it leaves a potential adversary in no doubt of the consequences that should they launch a first strike or an invasion against this country.

    We can either have Trident & smaller armed force numbers like we do now or we can have larger conventional forces like Germany or Japan.

    The libdem position seems to be flagelate ourselves whilst we have neither and hug people to death. Those who even question whether we would retaliate to an attack on this country should never be in charge of it.

  • Nick Worrow 22nd Apr '10 - 3:26pm

    Checking wiki I find you are right… Currently trident is our only delivery systm. But I also find we have had freefqll bombs in the past, have cruise missiles now and the us sucessfuly uses cruise for nuclear delivery. In that case I strongly suspect the creation of such an alternative delivery system is feasible for a very small price tag, probably on the order of 1 or 2 bn. Why not create such a system in preference to trident ? With the run in time of “new” trident this ought to be feasible.

    The issue with tridents costs are largely their highly developed nature and the costs of the subs. We have planes, missiles and ships. Why not use them ? As I noted above thiswould be sufficient for all but a worst case scenario…. And the American umbrella indemnities us against that in any case.

    He’ll, we could buy a half dozen ASMP-SRAMs off the French as they are replaced by their ASMP+’s.

    The issue of trident… A £100bn system should be seperate from nuclear capability itself. We know how to build gravity bombs ffs.

  • Nick Worrow 22nd Apr '10 - 3:36pm

    I also note that on.the LD website this is exactly what is proposed… Scrapping trident for a cheaper alternative. That is NOT the view you’d get from the lead article which reads like the LDs are pursuing no deterrant. This is, in light of the manifesto published, inaccurate, misleading and (potentially) political poison.

    The argument is….. We can do it cheaper and just as effectively in practice…. Not “we won’t bother to do it at all”. A deterrant will still exist, and the order to use it (especially in a tit for tat small exchange) may have to be sent.

  • Nick Worrow 22nd Apr '10 - 3:46pm

    As regards the “Jews under water” link…. surely that proves my case. We already HAVE subs superior to those Israeli diesals. one such sank the belgrano. Why not just purchase some of the nuclear harpoons the Israelis bought?

    The argument should be presented as “we can do 99% of trident for 1% of the price….And we don’t need the other 1% in any case as in that event every Brit alive would be dead and the us would already be retaliating”…NOT “we won’t have any deterrant at all and wouldn’t use it if we did”

    If attack sub launched harpoons are a good enough deterrant for the Israelis, in THEIR position, that would be more than enough for us.

  • Malcolm Wood 22nd Apr '10 - 3:56pm

    Delighted to have provoked such a lively discussion, hilarious misreprentations of Winston Churchill’s motives aside.

    To be clear, my argument is not against robust military defence; it’s specifically against the relying on the sort of weapons of indiscriminate slaughter that Trident submarines carry.

    It’s that these weapons are only useful if it’s clear that you are ruthless enough to use them. So if we want to keep Trident, we need to be sure that we have a leader who’s prepared use the civilians of an enemy state as pawns in our squabble with its leaders.

    Let’s hope that we get clarification in tonight’s debate.

  • Alec
    The UK is not under a threat of nuclear war from any other country
    and is not likely to be for the forseeable future.

  • Nick Worrow 22nd Apr '10 - 4:14pm

    Well my point Malcolm would be that this is a singularly unhelpful “frame” within which to have this debate. It plays into the scaremongering other parties are likely to attempt and plays down the actual strength of the policy.

    You can frame it this way…. But I fail to see why any LD would want to during an election. It would be like framing the Europe debate in “we like Eurocrats making our laws” terms rather than “this is what we need to do in order to be economically successful” terms. You CAN frame it either way…. But one way of putting it is a lot more politically tone deaf than the other. In fact on various forums I have spent a lot of time reassuring Tory/ld waverers thatthe trident policy is specifically NOT a unilateral disarmament policy (with some success in quieting reservations about voting LD). The last thing we need right now is the “they’d be happy to leave us defenceless” meme to gain greater currency, particularly as that is what the manifesto is written to explicitly rule out with nuclear policy.

    Obviously, your mileage may differ….. But surely you cam see that the original argument made is no great winner of undecided votes, as reassuring as it may be to the peacenik choir.

  • Talking of bombs.
    Some M-79 grenades have been fired at the Sala Deng
    station on Silom Road. A number of people have been hurt.

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Apr '10 - 6:47pm

    I would like to remind everybody that Trident will likely remain in service until the 2040s, and the next Parliament will have very little to do with what finally happens to it. The only significant decision to be made in the next five years is whether to investigate alternatives.

  • The deliberate targeting of civilian populations by conventional or nuclear weapons is against Geneva conventions (Hiroshima and Nagasaki were arguably ‘military targets’), hence, the decision to retaliate in the fashion that you allude to would never appear in any British Military doctorine nor even be offered as an option to a PM. This makes most of your ramblings a mute point. However I agree entirely that its pretty much a waste of money to design replacements for Trident as we, hopefully, don’t have the kind of enemy any longer to whom this kind of weapon was a deterrent. It certainly doesn’t deter terrorists as there is no obvious place to retaliate against.

  • Nick Worrow 23rd Apr '10 - 6:31am

    Meandering mammal….

    But you are presupposing we are going to use the alternative to deliver 200+ nukes in an all out counter strike. That’s not a nuclear deterrant we need (an attack sufficient to trigger such a response would trigger a us response and would be academic to uk citizens in any case as we’d be dead).

    The kind of deterrant we actually need is the ability to deliver 1-10 nukes in response. Enough to utterly deter a conventional attack or a limited attack by a rogue state. We could do that quite easily and cheaply by equipping existing cruise subs with nuclear options and adding air launched options like the French missiles to the RAF.

    It MAY be probibitvely expensive to provide a trident CW defence of 200+ warheads with single warhead cruise/harpoon/air launches. However it is FAR cheaper to provide the deterrant we actually need with these systems.

    Look at the israeli link above …. In a far more precarious situation than us they are usig 3 diesel subs and air launched missiles to defend against just such an attack…. We could provide a superior detterrant to this with existing subs and aircraft merely updated with nuke delivery systems (superior in that it would also be distributed worldwide given our legacy of imperial bases like the falklands and our worldwide, as opposed to med only, fleets)

    We don’t need to replace the cold war “massive 2nd strike after a humungous 1st strike” abilities of trident…. ONLY the ability to respond to a much more linter nuclear attack (of the kind NK or Iran could deliver in the future) AND/OR deter conventional invasion.

    Our current 4 subs …. Each with a half dozen warheads…. Backed up with 5 dozen aircraft delivred weapons, reasonably widely dispersed, would be more than enough and would only require purchasing the final delivery systems. We already have the subs\aircraft\personel required.

  • Nick Worrow 23rd Apr '10 - 1:13pm

    Well first I was proposing the kind of Iranian
    or no capacirty they could have in 2040, the timescale we are talking about. This could clearly include an ability to target the uk.

    As to the targets appropriate to a retaliatory strike, I’d suggest large military installations. Often, for reasons of security far enough removed from pop. centres to not involve excessive civilian casualties. If, say, Iran tossed a half dozen nukes at London and one or more got through….. I wouldn’t consider nuking ishfahan, some large revolutionary guard bases and large naval installations as excessive in return. Similarly, should a 2045 distopian world
    include a serious attempt on invading the uk mainland I wouldn’t consider nuking the invasion fleet in the channel/north sea to be excessive by any means.

    As to needing lots of subs to cover the world, why ? Again, I am not talking of a full tridet replacement that would require such instant response as the overwhelming 1st atrike came in. Response within days would be enough.

    I am merely taking the (what shhould be reasonable) position that cancelling
    trident is not a unilateral disarmament and although we WOULD forgo a massive 2nd strike capability we WOULD NOT be foregoing any nuclear detterance OR ability to respond to a limited nuclear/conventional invasion with a limited but effective response.

    We no longer NEED tgenability to take out 200 cities instantaneously. The ability to take out a dozen targets over a reasonable time frame is deterrant enouugh…. As the Israelis would be able to tell you. Does their deterrant in a much worse situation coat them 10x trident (as you said above) ? No. Is it still an effective deterrant even in their (much more precarious situation) ? Yes.

    Why not have what they are having ? It is clearly sufficient to provide almost all the benefits of trident… NATO covers us for the rest… and it’s a fraction, a very small fraction, of the price.

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