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The Complexities of Trident and Nuclear Disarmament

This article is split into a few basic parts:

  1. Prelude
  2. A Case Against The Case For Trident

    being arguments against some common arguments in favour of Trident Renewal

  3. A Case Against The Case Against Trident

    being arguments against some common arguments against Trident Renewal

  4. Summary... or 'Is There a Possible Path Out Of This Mess?'

The Prelude To This Article

At the time of writing (July/August 2016) the U.K.Parliament have just voted on whether to update the Vanguard nuclear submarines currently used to deploy it's Trident nuclear deterrent.

It was something of a political charade. The government had a majority in the commons, and renewal was a part of their election manifesto; It was always going to pass. But it was right that a debate was had in parliament, even if it may have been had for all the wrong reasons. If our nation is to possess such immensely powerful, perhaps diabolical weaponry, then the government should ensure they justify their reasoning for the necessity of it's possession to both parliament, and perhaps more importantly to the nation as a whole.

It's also important that we remember that such justifications will be seen throughout the world, and we must consider how other nations will view the justifications we make in light of their own arsenals. The point cannot, or at least should not be ignored, that other countries can and might use the same justification that we use, to justify keeping or expanding their own arsenals.

The debate is far from over. It's an important subject, given that the ultimate objective from the sane parties on either side of what can be a very heated discussion is ultimately peace. Hopefully we might accept that each side are simply differing over how to achieve that. Perhaps a question we should be asking, is how do we know when we've got a lasting peace? How will we know when it is safe to drop our defences?

Are we there already? Is it safe to drop our defences now, against what was considered our nations greatest threat for the greater part of the last century? It seems our government don't think so, although their motives have been called into question by many.

While some of the figures being thrown around regarding the cost of replacing Trident are undoubtedly works of exaggerated fiction, we're still talking about numbers that could line a lot of pockets, and military spending isn't exactly renowned for buying cheap to remain within budget. Perhaps it's not unreasonable to questions people's motivations for specific arguments on both sides of the debate, given the numbers at stake, be they financial, or to put it bluntly, projected body counts.

But is it safe to disarm now? My honest answer is, “I don't know for sure." I think if most of us are honest, even those amongst us with a better understanding of global politics, might suggest that they don't know either. Winds blow, situations change, dominions rise and fall, and we must be adaptable. We make our best guesses, but it's probably sensible to approach this subject with careful consideration, rather than emotional hot headedness and exasperation because "we have to do something!"

My inclination is to lean towards the side of saying that it isn't safe yet, as I believe the likelihood of other countries using the threat of nuclear weapons against us is much higher than is generally perceived. It is reported that Margaret Thatcher threatened to use nuclear weapons against Argentina if François Mitterrand, the French Prime Minister of the time, didn't hand over deactivation codes for weapons France had sold to Argentina. It's not just the weapons themselves which are at issue, but the bargaining power they bring to the table.

Is it wise to intentionally put yourself on the side of the table of those who don't have nuclear weapons, given the way the bigger players at the table who do, will invariable abuse any bargaining power they possess? There is of course an equally valid argument coming from the other side of the discussion, questioning the wisdom of an ongoing arms race, with an ever present danger of accident, or some war mongering moron actually using, or forcing the use of such weapons.

These aren't arguments that cancel each other out. Neither proves the other wrong. They are both valid arguments that add weight to a particular course of action.

Which side of the discussion you come down on, can depend as much about how much emotional weight you give to specific arguments, as it does about the logic of the arguments themselves.

A Case Against The Case For Trident

Disclaimer: However much a person might try to be unbiased, we can't always give a fair hearing to arguments we don't currently agree with. As such I think I can only state my overall view at the outset. My preference is for multilateral disarmament, and I even appreciate the relative peace that having super powers afraid to enter conventional warfare with each other brings. As such, I'm probably not the best person to be writing a section about the problems with pro deterrent arguments. This is an attempt at balance, and an acknowledgement that it's not just one side of the discussion that includes poor arguments.

Sometimes if we maintain an open mind, and argue honestly, it's possible to see where people arguing from the same basic position as us, are offering weak, or even completely unjustified reasoning. These are what I currently see as the invalid arguments being made in favour of Trident renewal.


Can We Trust The MOD When It Comes to Defense Spending Estimates?

Initial Estimates for the cost to replace the Vanguard submarines used to launch Trident were lower than those being used today.

The first point to make is that the Ministry of Defense are notorious for going over budget. Maybe it just never hits the news when government departments come in under budget, but we're all well aware that big projects very often go over.

The second is that the MOD made these cost projections based on the assumption that they were simply replacing the submarines. It was taken as read that the cost of running the entire system day to day would remain constant if they carried on using the old submarines (although obviously it would be less reliable if they continued to so, and would likely include higher maintenance costs)

CND pointed out that the cost of the upgrade, compared to unilateral disarmament must also include the operational costs for the life of the system. They originally arrived at a total figure of around £100bn.

It's important to note that the MOD and CND are talking about different things here. The MOD estimate is just for submarine replacement. CND's estimate is for submarine replacement and the cost of running the system for 40 years, but if you're comparing the cost of replacement to unilateral disarmament, CND's original figure is more relevant.

[Note: CND have since released much higher figures based on what appears to be little more than bad mathematics and the belief that higher numbers make bigger headlines]

Should We Really Maintain Trident Just To Protect Jobs?

Simple answer; No. Given the amounts of money involved, we could simply invest in other areas to create other jobs. Hell, we could probably just divide the money up and split it between the people who'd lose their jobs, and they'd be made for life. Yes jobs, and people's ability to earn a living is incredibly important, but you don't base a decision such as this on whether people are going to have to go through a career change otherwise.

There is a more valid argument that the knowledge some of these people possess is strategically important, and we don't want them being employed by less scrupulous souls, and in some cases, simply don't want to lose the knowledge. But as a generalisation, you don't create a weapon delivery system capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people at a time, just to protect jobs. You need a better reason than that.


A Case Against The Case Against Trident

I've listed below some of the common arguments used against Trident renewal, and linked to my opinion on their validity;

Do Nuclear Deterrents Work?

That's not really a detailed enough question. Does it work as a deterrent against who? Of course it wouldn't work as a deterrent to someone who's hell bent on destroying you or the planet and to hell with the consequences, but what about someone who when enraged might wish to flatten you, but who doesn't actually wish to be flattened themselves?

Surely it is a valid deterrent against people who would happily (or even unhappily) fry you, but don't want to be fried themselves. I think we can safely say that people who get to be the leaders of world powers, are generally very keen on self preservation. They're generally the sort of people who don't mind pushing other people out of the way... but who are, as stated, very keen on self preservation.

I do believe that a nuclear deterrent works in specific circumstances, and those circumstances are the ones most prevalent amongst those countries who currently have nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapons Don't Work Against Terrorism or Other More Prominent Threats?

It's suggested that the three biggest threats to our nation are terrorism, climate change, and cyber crime. Why then, would we spend so much money on Trident, when it doesn't solve any of these problems?

The very question is false. We know that there are more than three things in the world that we have to worry about. You can't just list the top three and say that we can't justify spending money on anything else. If the tier one threats are international terrorism, climate change, and cyber crime, are we going to argue that heart disease isn't on that list, so we can scrap the money being spent on the NHS. The NHS costs some 50 times more each year than running trident, but quite understandably, no one is making this case. The point being, that we don't simply pick three things to focus on, and then refuse to spend money on anything else. That would be ridiculous.

The Risk of a Nuclear Accident is a Bigger Threat to us than Trident's Value as a Deterrent

I don't want to trivialise the possibility of accidents. It's a serious consideration, and they do happen. In the case of nuclear power stations, every time they build one they state that previous accidents couldn't possibly happen using modern technology, and every now and then, another nuclear power station explodes anyway. No one builds these things thinking they're going to explode, but they still do. Sometimes scientists and engineers get their sums wrong, or simply fail to consider all possible situations that could go wrong. We can't ignore the possibility of accidents.

On the other hand, we have to balance that against the benefit of not having other people launch nuclear weapons at you on purpose. You don't refuse to have knives in your kitchen because you might cut yourself. You accept that they have a positive function. We just have to take this case a lot more seriously, because the effects of getting it wrong are so much more serious.

I think we need to be clear here. The effects of either side being wrong in this debate could be catastrophic.

Does Possessing Nuclear Weapons Make Us More of a Target For Nuclear Attack?

If we accept the argument that nuclear deterrents do work then at best this argument is only valid if a prospective enemy believes that they can completely remove our deterrent in an initial attack.

The whole point of Trident is that it is a submarine based system, where at least one of the submarines is always at sea. This means that in order to attack us, without suffering consequences, any enemy would first have to locate the submarine at sea, and make it incapable of returning fire.

In the first days of Trident, this was considered impossible. You can't attack a sub in the middle of an ocean if you don't know where it is. Now people talk of submarines being located by drones, or satellites. It's all far fetched, though not completely impossible. We should first remember that the worlds oceans are very very large, and submarines are comparably, bloody tiny, but secondly this doesn't make Trident useless. All it means is that we enter another arms race, where nuke seeking drones are combated by drone seeking drones etc, and without better knowledge of what's currently going on in the defence industries, we're largely taking about speculation, or writing science fiction at this point.

But let's not get confused here. Nukes are only the primary target because they are the first line of defence. No one has ever launched a nuclear attack on anyone else just for having nukes. We can even go so far as to state that we know that the U.S./U.K. didn't believe that Iraq had working WMD's because they wouldn't have invaded Iraq if there was a chance Iraq would have launched them in retaliation.

The primary reason for the vast majority of wars, is that someone else has some resource or other than the aggressing side wants. Nukes are simply the first, or most deadly, line of defence. If you take them away, something else will be the first point of attack. In the case of Peal Harbour, the Japanese knew that they needed to neutralise the U.S.A. fleet, so that was the primary target. Are we going to suggest that the U.K.should next get rid of it's navy and air force because they'll be the primary target once we don't have nukes?

I see no reason to believe that possessing nuclear weapons makes you more likely to be attacked. The effectiveness of a deterrent is still valid.

Can We Afford Trident?

Basically the answer to this is, Yes, and here's the basic numbers (figures based on 2016).

  • U.K.GDP is around two trillion pounds.
  • Government Spending is estimated at £762 Billion
  • Of that, The government has agreed as part of it's conditions of membership of NATO to spend 2% of GDP on defence, which amounts to around £45 Billion.
  • Trident Costs around £2 billion a year to maintain, and that is taken entirely from the defence budget. So any arguments you see suggest that if we don't have Trident we can have more hospitals are not telling you anything like the whole truth. If we don't have Trident, we can have more tanks, or more military equipment, but not more doctors, nurses, schools or hospitals, unless we renege on our commitments to NATO.

    Note: Trident annual costs fluctuate, being more expensive in earlier years as the cost of building new submarines is involved, and dropping in later years when we're just looking at operational and maintenance costs. I've used a rough average. The article linked to provides more detailed analysis.
  • If you think the cost of Trident is £167 Billion, or £205 Billion, you were misled.
  • To add context, the NHS costs for 2015/16 were £116 Billion for one year. 50 times the cost of Trident. I'm not suggesting two billion pounds a year isn't a big number. Just adding context.

So Why Are The Government Constantly Telling Us We've Got No Money?

In order to cover this subject more completely, I think we need to head off on a little tangent. Anyone who's spent any time studying U.K.economics since the 2008 banking crisis will understand that austerity was not a necessity, but a political choice. It was actually little more than an excuse for furthering the Conservative Party agenda of privatisation, removing the welfare state, and cutting government to the absolute minimum that fits with free market dogma. It was a political choice. There was always the option of borrowing, or creating more money, and in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis, where the money supply (amount of money in circulation) was falling because banks had stopped lending, there was a very good argument for the government simply creating the necessary money itself, and using it to fund infrastructure projects, or the services it was cutting, while the banks sorted their acts out (or even over the longer term).

The fact is, if they want something enough, they find the money. If the necessary money is not immediately available, if they really want something, they borrow the money, and they're not completely adverse to simply creating the money out of thin air when it suits them. They magicked £375 Billion from thin air, to give to the banks following the banking crisis; Which was over half the national debt at the time. It wasn't that they couldn't find the money for the welfare state, pensions, NHS, housing or other such things which were privatised or cut. It was that they chose not to, because it didn't fit with their agenda.

Trident is Controlled by the U.S.A and We Can't Fire It Without Their Agreement.

This simply isn't true, or more to the point, I've never seen any suitable reference to back up this claim, while there are reliable references refuting the point.

Essentially Trident uses stella navigation, and not just GPS, so the U.S.A. couldn't simply switch off the guidance system. It's possible that there's circuitry in the missiles that could prevent firing without U.S.A. permission... but anyone claiming they know this for a fact is at best guessing, and the chances are that the boffins at Aldermarston have been over the things with a fine tooth come to make sure that this isn't the case. But at this point, the argument is at best conjecture.

Why Do We Need Trident When We're a Member of NATO and NATO has Nuclear Weapons?

There are three countries who currently have nuclear weapons within NATO. NATO itself doesn't have any nuclear weapons. NATO nuclear weapons are actually owned by the U.S.A, France, and the U.K.

If we get rid of the U.K.'s nuclear deterrent, this puts us into a position where we are expecting U.S. and French tax payers to fund our defence. U.S. and French tax payers aren't going to agree to that, without expecting further contribution from the U.K.

It also leaves us in the precarious position where if the French were to join us in dropping their nuclear defence, that the entirety of Europe's nuclear defence would be being provided by the U.S. This is obviously less than preferable from a defencive perspective, and going to be completely untenable from a U.S. political perspective. U.S. governments will find it very hard to sell protecting Europe to an electorate who's funding it, when we aren't even attempting to defend ourselves on that front. If we accept that if we're going to be a part of NATO then alongside it's other members, we're also responsible for funding and administering it. It's not unreasonable to accept that our possession of Trident is a part of that.

Do Any Other Countries Present Any Kind of Threat That a Nuclear Deterrent is Effective Against?

It's a difficult question to answer because we don't know what the situation would be if we didn't have nuclear weapons. And lets not forget that current world stability, if you can call it that, is based upon the stalemate that has ensued, between NATO, Russia, and China all possessing nuclear weapons.

Our nuclear weapons have to be considered as part of the NATO arsenal, and not in isolation.

Having said all that, if we need an actual real world example, I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that there's currently a proxy war going on in Syria involving all of the U.K., U.S.A., Russia and China. 

If we removed the nukes from the situation, I don't think it's unreasonable to be concerned that we could very soon remove the word 'proxy' from the situation too, and it would extend into each others borders. 

If we just remove the nukes from one side, and not the other, then it wouldn't be a war, it would be a simple case of the Russians and Chinese dictating to us what we were going to do, or vice versa. 

In this example, I'm actually fine with that. The U.K. and U.S.A. shouldn't be involved in Syria in the way they are, but as a generalisation, I'm not. That kind of power imbalance does not lead to a rosy future, and Russia and China are not two of the biggest countries in the world because they have a history of staying at home and minding their own business. Of course it's safe to say the same is also true of the U.K. and U.S.A.

What happens if our governments refuse to be dictated to? Maybe our opponents just drop the one bomb up north, so London and the majority of the population down south know that they're serious. How quickly would we have to capitulate?

I want to make it clear, I'm not suggesting that either the Russian, or Chinese governments are any worse than our own on this front.

The U.S.A. and U.K. governments were more than happy to invade, Iraq, as well supporting regime change in Libya and Syria, safe in the knowledge that those countries couldn't hit back with any kind of deterrent.

There are 187 Other Countries Without a Nuclear Deterrent. If They Don't Need One, Why do We? 

The first question that should arise in response to this question, is are we including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tibet, and Ukraine amongst those 187?

These countries have all been massively abused by nuclear powers, and the chances are that these countries would not currently include the amount of rubble, or oppression that they do (or did), had they had a suitable deterrent at the time.

Can't We Just Develop Anti-Nuke Missiles Instead?

Unfortunately, one reason those who have nukes have so many nukes, is so that they can overload missile defence systems. Bear in mind cruise missiles travel at around 500miles an hour. They're not easy to locate or hit. A radar blip isn't telling you where it is, it's telling you where it very recently was.

Having a defence system with no method of retribution, also means that people can just keep chucking nukes at you in the hope that one gets through. Which eventually it's going too, given the complexities of shooting down objects traveling at 500 miles an hour.

It makes sense to do what you can to ensure they're not fired in the first place, though I accept if we could defend against these things 100% we wouldn't need a deterrent.

Unfortunately when the US suggested creating the Star Wars Program (being able to shoot cruise missiles down with lasers from satellites) in 1983 the USSR at the time went (excuse the pun) ballistic, because it would have meant the US would then be able to use it's nukes with impunity.

Which is a worrying thought.

It would be nice to think that if such a system were developed, it would be implemented worldwide... but politicians aren't currently renowned for being that magnanimous.

If We Accept it's O.K. for Us to have Nuclear Weapons, How Can We Argue That Other Nations Shouldn't?

I have no argument against this point. It demonstrates a level of hypocrisy amongst our political classes, but hypocrisy amongst our political classes should come as no surprise to us. It's the classically patronising "Do what I say, and not what I do." argument.

Of course there is a pragmatic argument for trying to prevent the entire world from having their own personal nukes. If everyone's got them, the chances of an accident, or them being involved in an act of war greatly increases.

But this doesn't alter the logic that each individual country is better off if they've got them; The U.S.A would never have used nuclear weapons against Japan, if Japan had been capable of retaliating in kind. The U.S.A/U.K. would never have dared invade Iraq if they actually believed that Iraq possessed WMD's they were capable of using in retaliation. Syria was persuaded to give up its chemical weapons, and when it had done so... the U.S.A then increased it's efforts to topple Assad.

It leaves us in a situation where we're damned if we do, and damned if we don't, but this point doesn't in any way contradict any of the arguments I've made elsewhere. It merely demonstrates what a horrifically complex situation the human race is currently in.


Summary... Or 'Is There a Possible Path Out Of This Mess?'

I don't believe there's a single easy solution, but I don't believe it's hopeless either. I think there may be actions we can take which will lead towards a greater likelihood of us reaching a solution eventually, but we're in a mess, and it's likely it will be a long road to peace.

Unfortunately many people will accept any easy but flawed answer, over an effective but more complicated one.

What's more we live in a country and a culture dominated by a right wing press, which is exceptionally pro business, and if there's one thing that war is good for, it's business. During times of international stress, certain papers, and specifically the right wing tabloids, will start beating the drums of war, to build the population up to accept it.

Prior to and just after the invasion of Iraq, Hollywood produced numerous films, vilifying Iraqis, and promoting war and it's "heroes". If we're to achieve peace, we must actually want peace, and we can't let our media manipulate us in this way; But it's not enough to simply want peace, because the great majority of the people on the planet want peace and we're still in this mess. We must be willing to stand up for our beliefs and speak peacefully about why peace is important, especially at times when the right wing media are repeatedly clamouring for more war. [To avoid accusations of bias, I'm sure that in communist countries, it will be left wing media banging the war drums, it simply happens to be the right wing media in the west who are generally guilty of it.]

We must look to build trust with the rest of the world. This can be done through trade, and through travel. Invariably people who are well traveled, and more understanding of other cultures are less likely to promote war.

But primarily, we, the people of the world must seek to put leaders into power in all of our countries who we trust to promote world peace and trust between our nations; While at the same time accepting that we aren't there yet, and we still need defences while we take that journey.

It's a job for steady hands on the rudder, and not something to be forced before its time, because historically, the price of weakness has invariably been enslavement or destruction.

It's not a hopeless situation; But it is a complex one.