Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is there a case for the defence (budget)?

There is apparently some confusion around the government today about whether the defence budget will rise in real terms, or whether only the equipment budget will rise, and as everything overspends, whether this will still amount to a cut. We seem no clearer this evening.

Here's my solution: axe Trident. I have huge moral objections to nuclear weapons, so I'd be glad to see them go in all circumstances. But even using the logic of the proponent, it's hard to see the justification financially and militarily.

The official cost estimates in 2010 were £15-20 billion, and many believe it will be nearer £34 billion. That's a lot of money that could be used to a) invest in the towns like Barrow affected by the cancellation, b) ensure the conventional forces being deployed actually have all the stuff they need and decent houses to come home to and c) do some deficit reduction instead of taking it off disabled people and the poor. Even £15bn is a lot of money to spend on something you hope you never use.

Think about it. The British nuclear deterrent was conceived as a way of ensuring we had the independent means to deter the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We couldn't hope to win a conventional war against the USSR, so we wanted to make sure they wouldn't mess with us, and would certainly pay for using nuclear weapons on the UK, if it ever came to that. The British deterrent was always 'second strike' - that is they would be used after Britain was a smoking radioactive ruin. And it was very hard to imagine circumstances where we would have used it in isolation from a US response.

So at most Polaris and Trident would have been a kind of posthumous revenge. In his old age, Denis Healey once admitted that back in the 60s if he had been in bunker after a Soviet attack, he wouldn't have launched Polaris. What would the point have been in slaughtering millions of Russians after the damage was done?

But hang on a minute, we were in NATO, the US was our ally, and did anyone seriously believe that a Soviet nuclear attack on any Western power wouldn't get a US response? What difference would 'our' deterrent have made to that picture? Probably none, but it made us feel we were doing our bit.

The same surely applies now with regard to the big nuclear powers. Ah, Russia and China might not be the threat, the argument might go, but don't we need nukes to protect us from Iran, North Korea et al? Logic would suggest that it's the same situation. A nuclear strike by any 'rogue state' would certainly get a US response, so if that doesn't deter them, will a couple of Trident subs?

The other major threat to national security is, of course, terrorism. But what use is a nuclear warhead against a terrorist. We don't know where they are, and the best hope of stopping them will be through police and intelligence work. And many terrorists are happy to die in their cause; some even seek it. The Cold War peace was said to be maintained by the dangerous balance of mutually assured destruction (MAD) between the USA and USSR. However, if one side is happy to die, that balance is destroyed.

So who exactly do we think our £15bn+ subs will actually deter, and under what conceivable circumstances would it be militarily advantageous to have them, even if we set aside moral qualms about the nature of the weapons, and the possibility of other peaceful strategies. Even for a 'hawk' the case for a British nuclear capability seems to make less and less economic and strategic sense. Some British defence chiefs have even come to that very conclusion.

And we haven't even started to talk about ethics...
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Luc Rolland said...

On a pure military level, your argument is behind the reason why the "always clumsy and wrong" French decided not to build another generation of ballistic missile subs, but to build the first platoon deployment subs in the world making capable of any surgical strike anywhere without being seen coming an leaving. These subs are called the Barracudas. In this way, France will soon be capable to also manage salvage operations of their citizens, just in case terrorists did abduct too many useful citizens.

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