Tridents Into Ploughshares

Trident Submarine from the Defense Archive

Trident Submarine from the Defense Archive

I am not a pacifist. Tragic and traumatic though it may be, there are times when only the threat of force or its application will bring miscreants to justice, or preserve our liberty.

Today we remember the fallen. We remember the wars that we consider just and moral, and those who died with no less courage and obedience in wars of questionable legality and purpose. Questions do not diminish the sacrifices made and hardships endured by those following orders. I salute them all.

They died so we can ask questions and hold those giving the orders to account, which makes today a good day to ask questions.

One question live in the political air is around Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. On one side of the debate is the established view: retaining a deterrent is an essential part of our role as a global power, a bulwark against an increasingly muscular Russia, and future threats unknown.

On the other side is a view championed by the left wing lunatics and bleeding hearts: the deterrent is a relic of a war we are no longer fighting, and a weapon we would never countenance using.

So here’s my first question: would we ever use our nuclear arsenal? Under what circumstances would the arcane procedures be enacted, leading to the launch of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction, when the deaths of non combatants must be taken as a given?

Pre-emptively surely that is an emphatic no. At no stage would we ever launch first, no matter the degree of threat.

Then in response? What if London were a smoking ruin? Cardiff levelled, nuclear winds howling across the Highlands? What then. Would we launch then?

I hope not. I am not one for mindless retribution. Would it ever right to avenge our innocents with the blood of non combatants, be they in the streets of their own cities, baying for our blood? No. Not even then.

And if it is my children and all the light and joy of my life sucked into the maelstrom? I hope, even then, I would say no. Let no other father have to contemplate it.

Don’t misunderstand me. Should they land their troops on our shores I would take my pitchfork and man the barricades and take a bullet. I’d swing whatever weapon I was given to stall the aggressor. But I could not kill his children. Even with his knife at my throat, even with the blood of my children on his hands I hope I would never stoop to threaten his children. God willing I can be that man.

I also hope I am not alone in this. I hope there are others who draw some line of absolute morality, of absolute humanity, and would hold fast to it irrespective of the inhumanity they face.

If you have stayed with me thus far, and even if you disagree, please follow through with the thought experiment. The second question is: if the deterrent will never be used, and the moral position is communicated, what purpose does it serve?

A couple of subordinate questions flow from that:

First does the presence of the deterrent increase our risk, or diminish it? Again there are two schools of thought. From the establishment: we won’t use it, but we have it. Back off.

And those same hand wringing bleeding hearts whinge: if we’d never use it, it serves no purpose. Let it go.

Second, does Trident deter any of the actual risks we face today? Our greatest threat is from international terrorism. It is a clear and present danger. Madness and insanity rooted in Salafism has brought death and destruction to our country, and threatens to do so again. The disaffection and poison is here on our own shores. But will we in response turn Riyadh or Doha to glass, as they are the source of the evil? We will not. Will we level the mountains of Afghanistan or send the scorching winds across the Syrian desert?  We will not.

And yet this is not the only risk. Although ISIS and its progenitors are a common enemy we are appalled to the point of inaction by Russia’s presence in Ukraine, jealous of its robust action in Syria and concerned for our newly minted allies in the Balkans and Baltics.

So would Russia ever launch its vast arsenal against us?

The answer I think lies just one move ahead in the geo political chess game. A commitment not to use a measure can be questioned and derided in the court of an aggressor nation’s public opinion. While we retain the means the commitment is just words.

Remember we went to war on the strength of a fictional dossier that put Saddam Hussein within 45 minutes of landing weapons of mass destruction on British soil. Do we think Putin is above lying to his populace as Blair lied to us? He would spew the lie in a heartbeat and use it as a pretext for a pre-emptive strike.

The only way to make the moral position credible is to relinquish the means. Perhaps it would stall the finger on the big red button knowing the target had no means of retaliation. Would even the bruised and battered national pride of the Russian people allow a strike against the unarmed? I fear that the degree of suspicion and mistrust is such that we cannot answer the question with certainty.

Be in no doubt we would be weaker. Even a sword never taken from the wall confers a sense of security. At best relinquishing Trident would leave our chances of facing devastation unchanged.

It sounds like a bad deal; lose a sense of protection for no diminution in risk. Which brings me to the third question: what’s the alternative?

The best place to start is money. In round numbers we’re talking about a procurement cost of £20bn and then running costs of about £2bn per year. (Source) That’s before we let military procurement botch it, more on that later.

What could that money buy that would be a better bet?

The first is a credible defence that inspires caution and respect in others. Our armed forces have faced cuts and criminal mismanagement for decades. Military procurement is synonymous with incompetence.

We should reinvest some of the billions that would be poured into the bottomless well of Trident into complement, capability and competence.  The last step means buying in some of the skilled, ruthless and relentless procurement specialists it has been my mixed blessing to work with over the years. It means the emotionless sacking of those who lack the skill to manage suppliers or complex contracts, and to hold those suppliers to account. We’re already deep in the hole on Eurofighter. Each additional one costs about £70m. That’s a lot extra airborne defence you can buy and leave a lot left over.

To be honest if the better procurement doesn’t pay for itself then its being done wrong.

We need a well manned, well armed and well supported military relevant to the threat of global terrorism. Part of the money saved will buy that.

As for the threat of global thermonuclear war, that also means investing in the technological advancements that would take down missiles in flight. There’s no point in launching them if they can’t reach the target. It is also a more pertinent approach when nuclear capability rests in increasingly unreliable hands. It would be an advancement worth the cost of developing it.

There will still be cash left over and we should pump that generously into research. Medical, social, life giving research which we share with an open hand with all the world. Better than bombs and boots on the ground is a small Union flag on the cure for malaria, or the water pumps that save lives among those people who would be radicalized against us.

At the same time the world’s best scientists would come back here. Drawn by the funding and support, they would also teach our youth and begin the essential rebuilding of our sick economy that makes little and sells much.

And there is the real unasked question of Trident: not what does it give us, but what does it prevent us from having: genuine security, investment in progress and the chance of a peaceful future. I think those are the things the brave people we remember died for.


Update 11/11/15: Article by Major-General Patrick Cordingley (who commanded the Desert Rats in the 1991 Gulf War) in The Times today: Trident is not a deterrent so let’s get rid of it

More of my writing here


6 thoughts on “Tridents Into Ploughshares

  1. It’s a tough call on when force is ‘appropriate,’ Ali, and has to be made case-by-case. I’m in mind, because I was doing some reading on it yesterday, of the ‘first’ use of atomic weaponry to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from the American perspective, but far removed from WWII as I was not born until some 30 years after the fact. I don’t know how else to state it, but I’ve always hated my country’s decision to use such a ‘tool,’ for precisely some of the reasons you have described–killing children or other innocents (not to even mention the long-term effects of radiation exposure/fallout). Today, my senses roil and I become enraged to read and see some of the human rights issues going on worldwide: Palestinian children being killed, Syrian children (and other innocents) being hit by barrel bombs or else fleeing and sometimes dying in that diaspora (like little Aylan), Yemeni children & noncombatants, the list goes on and on. And, of course, America doesn’t have a sterling track record with regard to treatment of its own citizens (most notably African-Americans, as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Native Americans before them) or others it deems hostiles, so we are hardly in a position to point fingers, per se. Anyway, a very complicated issue, and I understand the need for a nuanced view of pacifism as you’ve taken here. I’d say the thought experiment was a very fruitful one, not that you asked for my approval! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am cheered by your approval Leigh. It’s a difficult subject, and also easy to point fingers at one nation or another. But if you take a sufficiently broad look at history there may not be any nation or tribe that has not visited atrocities on another at some point. What remains then is for the humans to say: it’s never right to target the innocent.

      I’ll save you a seat on the bus.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am with you all the way on this. Even if the worst happened, I still think we should take the hit rather than hit the button. I also think, like you, that good investment of even half the cost of replacing Trident would increase the number of our friends and the level of practical, usable protection.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had to think long and deep about this one. You see, my understanding in the mid-1970’s to the mid 1980’s was that the western forces would use nuclear weapons of a tactical nature in Europe to slow a Russian advance given the vast material advantage that the Soviets possessed. So we would have used nuclear weapons first in a desparate gamble that the Russians wouldn’t respond with the global rather than the tactical ones.

    It’s wrong to use the “left wing lunatics and bleeding hearts:” card without due care. I’m certainly of the left and most of us are not lunatics whatever the Sun might say 😉 The Left and therefore the Labour party, is split on what happens with the nuclear deterrent. Some will agree with Jeremy Corbyn’s view – others, like me, will see value in retaining a deterrent.

    The third road that you espouse relies on technology that currently is not a water-tight umbrella. The Patriot missiles used by the US in Iraq were pretty effective but they were dealing with short range SCUD’s rather than the real ICBM’s. It could be that the future wars will only involve short range missiles but it only requires one to get through with a nuclear warhead to create devastation on a huge scale. And for ICBM’s you really have to intercept them in space or as they leave the silos – Don’t think we have that capability yet.

    The frightening thing is that the only real answer to the issues of nuclear weapons is the ‘all renounce and scrap’ one that Corbyn believes in. Sadly… You can’t put the genie back in the bottle and that horse has long since bolted with mazeppa on it’s back!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Martin, thorough and well reasoned, I’d expect no less. The “left wing lunatics and bleeding hearts” was a bit of self deprecating rhetoric, I hope that comes across. The debate is undoubtedly complex and nuanced. I admit my solution is flawed at present. I guess I’m more hopeful that by the time the current generation of subs go out of service the money saved has been ploughed into research that finds the answer. I admit also it is a risk.

      But most of all I’m pleased we can have a sensible conversation about the subject, which the media and our elected officials seem incapable of doing. My favourite quote at present is “Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance” by Maysles. So much of public policy these days seems to be reducing really difficult subjects to a headline or sound bite that a thorough thrashing out of the issues and details seems impossible.

      One for us to mull over a coffee sometime soon.

      Liked by 1 person

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