The Trident Debate

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The issue of the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons programme has been a prominent feature in the news recently, so I decided I would put in my two pennies’ worth. The main reason for the sudden uptick in interest in this topic is, of course, the stance of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose long history of anti-nuclear campaigning is no secret. However, despite the Conservatives’ attempts to shut down discussion by claiming opposition to Trident makes one an immediate threat to national security, there is a real debate to be had here.

The first thing to keep in mind is that, in many ways, Trident is old news. A recent article in the Guardian by Julian Borger explored some of the new technology which is set to dominate the field of conflict in the years ahead – swarms of underwater drones, large-scale cyber-attacks, and propaganda campaigns disseminated via social media. As Borger states, there is a real question over whether Trident will continue to function as a deterrent in future, even should we wish to keep it. The fact that the computer systems on which Trident runs are based on Windows XP – a 15-year-old operating system – is hardly encouraging.

Taking the large assumption that a renewed Trident does represent a viable deterrent for the foreseeable future, then there is the question of whether that deterrent is really needed. Many of the threats which the UK faces are not the kind which nuclear weapons are effective deterrents against. Non-state actors, such as terrorist cells, are able to act without fear of nuclear strikes, and whilst it is theoretically possible that a nuclear strike could be used against Daesh (ISIS), the level of civilian casualties involved – not to mention the fact that Daesh is not recognised as a state, and the strike would therefore legally be against Iraqi or Syrian territory – mean this is highly unlikely.

Furthermore, as a member of NATO, the UK benefits from the possession of nuclear weapons by other NATO members – i.e. the USA and France, as well as US-provided missile bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. This provides an effective deterrent in and of itself, as NATO is a mutual defence treaty which would call these countries into action should the UK be attacked. This could be further reinforced by the signing of a nuclear-sharing deal of our own with the USA, allowing US weapons to be stationed in Britain. This would give the UK roughly the same effective deterrent it currently possesses.

Labour is currently undergoing a strategic defence review which will focus on the issue of Trident, led by Shadow Defence Secretary Emily Thornberry, a trident sceptic. It has been confirmed that the option of withdrawing from NATO will not be considered, contrary to a previous statement by Ken Livingstone. The option of maintaining the submarine fleet without nuclear warheads, but retaining the ability to construct them has, however, been floated. Therefore, Labour’s options on Trident are essentially as follows:

  1. Renew Trident at a cost of approximately £100 billion over its lifetime. This will keep Labour hawks happy, blunt the Conservative attack and prevent the loss of any jobs
  2. Retire Trident and the submarine fleet and sign a nuclear-sharing deal with the USA. This will upset Labour hawks and provide ammunition to Conservative attacks, and will cost jobs (the exact number is uncertain – anything from 500 to 19,000), thus angering trade unions such the the GMB. It leaves nuclear defence largely in the hands of the USA
  3. Retire Trident but retain the submarine fleet and the ability to construct warheads at short notice. This will upset Labour hawks and play into Conservative hands, but keep the unions happy. It leaves nuclear defence largely in the hands of the USA in the short term
  4. Retire Trident and the Vanguard fleet completely, and sign no agreement with the USA. This will greatly upset Labour hawks and the unions (and just about everyone else), aid the Conservatives hugely and leave the UK without an effective nuclear deterrent, thus entirely dependent on the USA

It should be noted at this point that Labour is not the only party to have divisions on Trident – the Conservatives too have not always been entirely united on the issue, as Tom Pride’s recent article reminds us. Not only have former Defence Secretary Michael Portillo and ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie come out against Trident, several respected military figures have also opposed it.

The debate over Trident is worth having – and, from a Labour perspective, it is worth having now, as far from the next election as possible. The sooner the party can put to bed this divisive issue, the better. It should not be just a party dispute, however; nuclear weapons are a crucial element of our country’s defence structure, and decisions about them affect all of us.

Of the options above, Option 4 – complete abolition of nuclear weapons – is shortsighted and potentially dangerous. Like it or not, nuclear weapons do provide a strong deterrent against foreign aggression, and to rely purely on the USA for protection – who, in a crisis, will have their own priorities – is unwise. We should not go down this route. Options 2 and 3 are better, and I would not be surprised if one of them – or a combination of the two – ends up being Labour’s eventual stance on this issue. Indeed, a nuclear-sharing agreement in combination with a paranuclear capability is not a bad solution to the UK’s nuclear defence.

However, such a solution still places a great deal of trust in the USA as a loyal partner within NATO, something which the troubling popularity of Donald Trump suggests is not necessarily a good idea. Option 1 – full Trident renewal – is expensive and will detract from other areas of vital public spending, including the sadly-neglected remainder of our defence capability. However, I personally think it is the best way to guarantee the maintenance of an effective UK nuclear deterrent, and so it would be my preferred option.

Options 2 and 3 should, however, be taken into full consideration, as should the Liberal Democrats’ suggestion of reducing the actual number of submarines from four to three. Maintaining a nuclear deterrent, moreover, can and will only be successful as an integrated part of Britain’s armed forces, and hopefully the Labour defence review will address far more than just Trident.

This article is cross-posted with the author’s blog

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