Against a background of severe cuts to our Armed Force, and at least suspicions that there are more to come, it is probably inevitable that the need for, desirability and affordability of the UK Nuclear Deterrent will be subjected to even more intensive scrutiny than before. I have certainly heard some of this scrutiny from friends and acquaintances, and have noted that it is often from individuals who would never previously have been concerned about the issue. However, when discussing it with those who argue for its abandonment, it is difficult to find a simple, straightforward, inclusive case for maintaining the UK nuclear deterrent and that this should consist of a Trident-like system. The following comments are a personal attempt to build such a case.
We live in a dangerous, unpredictable and unstable world with unlimited scope for international disputes - real, imaginary or constructed - over territory, trade, faith, politics, water, energy and other natural resources.
We cannot be certain that, in the future, a totalitarian regime, fuelled by religious or ideological fanaticism, will not wish to threaten if not attack us with nuclear weapons, or with chemical, biological or cyber weapons which could be equally devastating to the nation and its people. We must have the means to deter such threats and, if attacked, to eliminate or reduce an enemy's capability to continue or escalate them. Our conventional forces have been run down to the extent that they are no longer capable, if ever they were, of achieving this, and with the USA refocussing its interest and military capability towards the East, it is essential that we retain our independent nuclear deterrent as our ultimate guarantor of security.
However unlikely or unpalatable it may be, we cannot be certain that we will never need to use nuclear weapons to defend ourselves and given that the UK independent nuclear deterrent is only about 3 to 4% of the defence budget, it is surely far better to have it and not need it, than need it but not have it.
Our possession of nuclear weapons signals to the world that we are in the first order of international, industrial and technological importance. Our permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council gives us enormous influence on the World and international relations. It is almost certain that, if we became the only permanent member of the Security Council without nuclear weapons, we would soon be unable to resist a clamour from nuclear nations such as India and Pakistan to replace us. That would be a huge blow to our international standing and reduce our ability to help resolve conflict in the world, thus, paradoxically, harming our own security interests. The desire to replace us on the Security Council might spur nations with a growing economy and technological capability to develop nuclear weapons in furtherance of this.
Our development and retention of nuclear weapons means that we have a huge reservoir of knowledge and expertise on their technology, design, construction, storage, command and control, and delivery. This enables us to more effectively monitor potential nuclear proliferation and take the right diplomatic, treaty and trade embargo actions to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
Economy and Industry
Building reliable, effective and safe nuclear weapons and their delivery systems necessitates substantial research and development in a wide range of advanced technologies, many of which have, or contribute to, non-military applications. These include maritime construction, navigation, communications, hydrographics, exploration, propulsion, medicine and acoustics. The expertise gained contributes substantially to the UK's advanced industrial base and helps the economy in no small way.
Without the driving force of the nuclear weapons programme, much of this expertise, and the huge numbers of jobs that derive from it, would disappear. Much of the nuclear weapons programme is in parts of the UK that would be particularly hard hit by the loss to their livelihood.
WHY A TRIDENT-LIKE SYSTEM?
The two main political parties are committed to replacing the combination of Vanguard submarines carrying Trident missiles with a like-for-like system. Other parties also agree that we should retain nuclear weapons, but there are voices that want a cheaper alternative. Such opinion has usually cited using Astute-class submarines with Tomahawk cruise missiles, or reducing the number of Vanguard class submarines by up to a half. The latter would mean that patrols could not be maintained continuously, leaving the country defenceless for months at a time while saving very little money. Aircraft and land-based delivery systems are so vulnerable and inflexible that no serious suggestion that these should be developed has been made.
Astute-class submarines are built and optimised for specific purposes (principally, detecting and attacking enemy submarines and ships). They were never intended to carry and deliver strategic nuclear weapons, and would require major and extremely expensive modifications to enable them to do so. Even then, they would not be optimised for this role and would be a poor alternative to a vessel that was.
We have few enough Astute-class submarines for their existing and very much essential roles, so would need to build additional ones.
Tomahawk cruise missiles are slow, fly low and have limited range and nuclear "punch" compared with Trident missiles. They can easily be detected and subjected to countermeasures or prompt retaliation. Furthermore, they may well be unusable if they cannot overfly particular territory because of political or military considerations.
Much of the deterrent value of Trident derives from its ability to deliver devastating destruction with little or no warning, thus leaving limited opportunity to deploy defensive or retaliatory measures. In contrast, cruise missiles give a great deal of warning, are vulnerable and have limited destructive power. A potential adversary might conclude that they are of limited deterrence because an attack by them could be countered and ridden out.
In short, neither the economic nor the military argument for the Astute/Tomahawk option stands scrutiny. The idea that we should soldier (sailor?) on with a much reduced fleet of our existing assets would, in my view, be as sensible as saving money by keeping fire stations open for only half the year.
I reiterate that the above text represents a personal view only and that it does not try to present any of the political, military, moral or financial arguments against a UK nuclear deterrent – it seems to me that the voices for them have always been noisy and need no help from me. The need for national security is, of course, the most compelling part of the protagonist case but I submit that there is more to it that, and have tried to be complete.
These notes are in the “Blog” section of the UKNDA web site, which emphasises their personal nature and also opens them up to comment from others. I would welcome any such comments.