Friday, April 23, 2010

Nuclear Weapons: a vote winner?

United States Trident II (D-5) missile underwa...Image via Wikipedia
One of the surprises of the recent leadership debate was the firm line taken by Labour and the Conservatives over the replacement of Britain's ageing fleet of nuclear-armed Trident submarines. The question lurking in my mind is whether the general public in the UK really regard the maintenance of an independent nuclear deterrent capability a vote-winner.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, the USA and USSR found themselves in the midst of an arms race. Both wanted to ensure they had enough capability to knock out the other's and to avoid incurring large amounts of retaliation - so-called first-strike capability. These weapons could be used in response to an attack, or 'up front' as a final card in an escalating game of 'dare' between the two Cold War adversaries. During the Cuban crisis it all came perilously close.

This policy, appropriately, became known a MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction. Once it was established that any nuclear war between the superpowers would destroy them both (and most of the world with them) then it was in neither party's interest to start such a war. In the subsequent decades, negotiations have reduced the arsenals and that continues to be the case.

Britain was never in a position where it had enough 'kit' to launch a 'first-strike' attack on the USSR; our deterrent was 'second-strike'. In other words, our deterrent would be launched after Britain had been hit with Soviet warheads, and devastating some Soviet cities was a minimum requirement. Vulcan bombers, Polaris and now Trident have all served as our minimum deterrent.

Of course, this all presupposes a few things. First it assumes that a nuclear attack on a non-nuclear Britain was likely, and that the US (or any other major power) wouldn't provide any defence. Second, it assumes that the posthumous revenge of our missiles or planes would have been enough to deter a Soviet regime hell-bent on annihilating Britain. Behind all of that is the huge moral question as to whether one should ever countenance unleashing these weapons in any circumstance. Dennis Healey admitted in an interview that had it come to the crunch, even if Britain was devastated, he could not have ordered the slaughter of millions of Russians - what would have been the point?

The world we live in now is very different. Anyone thinking of using a nuke against Britain now is likely to be either terrorists or a regime with an ideology that would not find being hit back in return such a deterrent as the USSR did. In a world a suicide bombers, MAD doesn't work. So even if you think use of nuclear weapons is morally defensible under some circumstances, against whom might a British government
Nuclear weapon test Romeo (yield 11 Mt) on Bik...Image via Wikipedia
conceivably use them?

The figure banded around is £100 billion over 25 years, with quite a considerable initial investment. Given the choice, I can't see why we would want to spend that much money on weapons, that we hope we never use, on an enemy we can't even identify. My own hunch is that neither does the majority of the British people.

I think it's correct that the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru are all committed to complete nuclear disarmament, whereas the Lib Dems want a review with a view to lower-cost options with lesser capability. Personally, I'd favour abandoning a deterrent altogether, and then use a significant slice of the money saved to invest in the communities heavily dependent economically on the Trident fleet. Another slice would be used to on ensure our conventional forces are fully supplied with the best equipment available, and that properly maintained and decent accommodation is there for their families.

Mr Brown would say I need to "get real".

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