As a retired merchant seaman of 45 years experience, I thank my lucky stars for the existence of the nuclear deterrent. Had it not been for that, I believe there is a good chance my bones would now be resting at the bottom of the North Atlantic or some other inhospitable stretch of water.
I now listen with concern to the increasing chorus of voices that speak out against the deterrent in general and the Trident system in particular. Often people who represent various organisations, some of them political and with the ear of the media, seldom miss an opportunity to pass negative comment. They often give sweeping and erroneous statements that go unchallenged and one group, the CND, have infiltrated one political party to such an extent that they dominate that party's defence policy and are using a recent wave of regional nationalism as a 'Trojan Horse' in order to advance their agenda. When the challenge to this wave of comment does come it is often shallow in content and lacklustre in delivery. I feel that it is time for supporters of the nuclear deterrent to step forward and deliver their message with the same or greater robustness and repetitiveness with which the opposing view is aired.
Some of the statements put forward by those who wish to see the UK's nuclear deterrent scrapped are listed below. Alongside them I have written why they are wrong or where a question has been asked, what the answer should be.
1. Statement: We can't afford the Trident replacement.
Answer: Wrong - The government estimates that the Trident replacement will cost about £24 billion while CND say it will cost 100 billion over 40 years. If we assume that one is an under estimate and the other an over exaggeration but that the true figure comes somewhere in the middle, say 60 billion over 40 years, then that works out at about 1.5 billion a year, for a nuclear insurance policy. When you consider that the present annual spend on defence is about £39 billion, the NHS about £115 billion and welfare a staggering £217-231 billion, we very obviously can afford it. Further to that, many of the detractors say that the money saved should be used to strengthen our conventional forces, which rather flies in the face of none affordability.
2. Statement: It is not independent because the system is maintained by an American company and the US controls the GPS positioning/targeting system.
Answer: Wrong - An American company may service the system but the UK/RN control it when the submarine is conducting its deterrent patrol. GPS is not the only guidance system and when that is degraded, as it might be by enemy action, others, such as inertial tracking or the shortly to be commissioned European Galileo satellite system, will come into play. People who claim that Trident is solely dependent on the GPS system should ask themselves how the Germans guided their V2 rockets in 1945; systems have developed somewhat since then.
3. Statement: We don't need it.
Answer: Wrong - How many people are the nuclear abolitionists prepared to see killed in a conventional war before they would give each side a weapon so awful that neither would dare use it for fear of retaliation in kind but would instead cease hostilities and revert to the negotiating table? Would 50 million be enough or even 85 million; let's go for something in the middle, say 65 million - equivalent to the population of the UK. Those are the estimates for deaths caused by World War 2 - a 6 year conventional war for all bar the last 4 weeks. If in 1945, the Japanese had possessed the ability to retaliate by dropping atom bombs on San Francisco and Los Angeles, would the Americans have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki? If you believe that they probably would not have done so - then you believe in the power of nuclear deterrence. For the past 70 years, the nuclear deterrent has stopped wars directly between the forces of those so armed and it continues to do so. We do need it.
4. Statement: Denmark hasn't got a deterrent and they haven't been attacked.
Answer: Wrong - They have not been attacked, but the Danes do have a nuclear deterrent - they have ours. The UK, USA and France are the guardians of the nuclear umbrella that covers the whole of NATO - all 28 nations. An attack on any one of them is an attack on us all and that is the essence of an alliance. America however, who is starting to pivot her forces to face the problems of Asia is increasingly asking why she should continue to provide 70% of NATO's resources. It is possible that cancellation of the UK nuclear deterrent, indicating a loss of will on our part, would result in the distancing of the US from European defence. The defence capability vacuum produced would weaken the alliance and could lead to its disintegration. The subsequent feeling of vulnerability might induce some front line states to procure nuclear weapons of their own; thus stimulating nuclear proliferation (nature abhors a vacuum). Those who think this would not happen need to take notice of events in the Persian Gulf where Saudi Arabia, a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, is concerned over America's decreasing reliance on Gulf oil and their distrust of efforts to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions is fuelling opinion that they should themselves acquire nuclear weapons. Allegedly, Saudi Arabia funded 60% of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme and has an agreement to acquire nuclear warheads from that source, should they be needed!
5. Statement: It can't be used.
Answer: Wrong - We use it every day. It keeps the lid on events by putting a cap on militaristic adventurism; a red line beyond which a potential aggressor will know that any possible perceived victory from the use of nuclear weapons would very much be a pyrrhic one.
6. Question: Under what moral code would we ever drop a nuclear bomb on a city?
A simple question to a complex issue and one which is designed to appeal to the emotions, pluck at the heart strings and ignore reason.
Answer: Two Codes: a) The 'Right of Reply'.
b) The Code that says 'Might is Right'.
a) I do not believe that we would ever consider bombing a city with nuclear weapons unless one of our cities had first been so bombed. If that should ever happen we would have to make the choice between immediate capitulation or replying in kind and then saying to the aggressor, "like you, we have plenty of those things, how long do you want to continue with this?" My inclination would be to follow the latter course.
b) If however, surrender and subsequent subjugation are to be our default response, then we really will be giving credence to the truth that 'Might is Right'. People should ask themselves, what happened to the moral values of the citizens of Kabul when the Taliban rolled in - answer: they adopted the moral codes of the Taliban or they were dead! What happened to the women of Berlin when the soviet army arrived in 1945 - answer: they took Russian boyfriends so that they could be raped by only one man instead of many! The lesson to be learnt from those stories and others like them is that your moral values are only as good as your ability to defend them or your willingness to die for them. I believe that should we ever be attacked by nuclear weapons, the benign morality of the secure will very quickly give way to the survival requirements of the threatened, as we struggle to establish 'who's might is right'.
Some groups and individuals have voiced the opinion that we can maintain the deterrent but at a lower availability and subsequent lesser cost. Their proposals suggest that we either cancel the Trident replacement and use nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from the Astute class submarines or have fewer Trident subs and sail them only in times of crisis. Both proposals are flawed. The RAF was shooting down cruise missiles in 1944 and while the missiles have improved since then, so have the defences. As for the suggestion that we sail a Trident submarine when there is a crisis, the proposers of that scenario should consider this - on July 29th 1914, during a period of intense international tension, Germany warned Russia that if they mobilized their forces it would be taken as a declaration of war! Realising how long their inefficient administration would take to mobilize, the Russians went ahead anyway and war quickly followed. If our politicians and diplomats were ever faced with a similar situation and were trying to calm things down would the sailing of a Trident submarine be considered an escalation and thus a declaration of war? I think it might. Best to keep that sub at sea so that our stance does not have to change at a critical moment, where experience in its operation can be maintained and the deterrent is not stuck in port where it can easily be destroyed.
Would the people who propose that Britain's and possibly NATO's defence rely solely upon conventional forces really send our soldiers to face a nuclear armed foe? If they did, they would possibly be guilty of replicating the actions of the generals who 100 years ago marched men in their tens of thousands directly into the muzzles of machine guns. Without similar weapons, there is no defence against a nuclear armed foe who is prepared to use them. Those that suggest we do not need a 'Rolls Royce' of systems to act as a deterrent need to think again. If we ever have to face down a foe who is capable of wreaking Armageddon upon us, we had better make sure he is in no doubt that our system, should it be used, would equally destroy him.
Many people have forgotten or possibly they never knew that Britain has already suffered an attack by a nuclear weapon! In November 2006, two Russian agents entered the UK with a portion of Polonium-210 and with it murdered Alexander Litvinenko; a naturalised British citizen. Polonium-210 is only manufactured in Russia and those agents left behind them a trail of contamination. I suggest the psyche that would do that, would in other circumstances, not balk from sending that radioactive isotope on the tip of a missile. It is alleged that the quantity of Polonium-210 required was first tested on Lecha Islamov, a Chechen prisoner in a Russian jail who died very quickly afterwards and the substance has also been implicated in the deaths/assassinations of other Russian dissidents. In essence, the Litvinenko murder was not so different to the killing of Trotsky (another enemy of the soviet administration) by a Russian agent in Mexico, 66 years previously. The 'Old Bear' hasn't changed that much!
I view those well-meaning individuals and groups who propose the abolition of our nuclear deterrent as being historically unaware, strategically naive, tactically ignorant, lacking in foresight and irresponsibly trusting. In their hands, the deterrent would be useless because the message they send is that they would not have the resolve to use it; which is why they say it cannot be used. What they are really saying is that 'they' could not use it! The deterrent works however because those that presently control it have said what they will do if we are attacked and those who take notice know that they will do what they say. It is that possession of the 'ability and the will' that persuades a potential foe to tread carefully.
Our layered defence forces are capped by the nuclear deterrent. Accounting for only 3-4% of our defence expenditure and providing only a small part of the nuclear weaponry available to the nine nations that presently possess them, the UK nuclear deterrent is the locking stitch that holds many parts and partners together. It is the ultimate defence for our institutions, administration, social structure and moral code; which includes our right to question their very existence. Long may our 'ability and will' to defend that right continue.