Time to scrap Trident?

Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was just on television and it seems an appropriate moment to recall that Britain has to decide soon whether to renew its nuclear deterrent, Trident. Philip Hammond, Minister for Defence, has already committed substantial funds to updating the programme, but the final decision is yet to be taken. Prime Minister Cameron is in favour of renewal, but Deputy PM Nick Clegg has been more circumspect in his support. Objectively, there seem lots of reasons why it should be scrapped.

First: price. Estimates vary, but it could cost up to £90 billion to fully implement the next iteration of Trident. Even conservative estimates place renewal in, at least, the tens of billions, and at a time when Britain is slashing other spending on, as we have seen recently, child support, the NHS and, indeed, its conventional armed forces. To maintain CASD (continuous-at-sea-deterrence) is a prohibitively expensive enterprise. Whilst various suggestions have been made to share a more cost-effective deterrent with the French, base British nuclear forces at the American naval installation at King’s Bay, Georgia, or otherwise reduce our financial burden, none seem feasible. Such options would appease neither those wanting to scrap the deterrent, nor those wishing to maintain a fully sovereign capability.

Second: utility. Britain faces far different challenges than it did when it acquired (with substantial, continuing US support) nuclear weapons in the early 1950s. With the Cold War over, the oft-stated official reason for continuing Trident is that the world is inherently unpredictable; that Britain simply does not know what challenges it will face in the future and if nuclear weapons might be required to deal with them. Once scrapped, nuclear capability cannot be easily reacquired, these critics say, so it should be retained as an insurance policy. But the argument that tomorrow is an unknown can be used to justify anything in the present. It seems equally likely that, by ditching its nuclear deterrent, Britain would be safer in the future, a lesser target, especially if it accompanied such action with concerted diplomatic effort to promote disarmament in other countries, too.

Third: ethics. Britain has, in many ways, a counter-value rather than counter-force strategy. This means that its nuclear weapons have no real war fighting capability; they do not just target enemy military installations (as there are not enough missiles to destroy them all), they target civilian population centres. In standard deterrence logic, the hope is that, by maintaining such a threat, potentially hostile countries will fear attack too much to risk aggression. Whilst this is the only option for a country with such a small nuclear arsenal, it means that, at root, Britain is willing to murder millions of innocent foreign nationals, and that it would do this even if no military advantage were to be had, such as through a retaliatory strike. As Kubrick’s film asks us, do we really want to live in a world where this is possible? Might it not be better to ditch this Cold War relic, and spend the money on something that can be of genuine use?

PK

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