A Trident 2 missile, carried by Royal Navy Vanguard-class submarines
There is a compelling but fallacious argument that, with North Korea’s nuclear posturing over the Sea of Japan and Iran apparently close to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, now is not the time to consider any change to Britain’s own nuclear stance. But it is because the threat of nuclear weapons falling into irresponsible hands is so real and worrying that we can no longer delay the review of our own nuclear deterrent system.
Three connected questions arise. First, from a military point of view, does Britain need a successor to Trident and would it be able to do the job intended for it? To this I believe the answer is unquestionably “No.” Such a system has not deterred, and indeed would not deter, any threats or challenges to this country, nuclear or otherwise. Nor, in a now intensely globalised and interlocked world, could such a deterrent ever conceivably be used, not even after some seriously hostile incident (which it had presumably failed to deter).
Britain’s national deterrent has never been truly independent and if this country had not possessed one during the Cold War standoff, it would certainly not be seeking such a capability now. Moreover, conflict is moving inexorably in an entirely different direction so that the oft-quoted justification for such a status symbol—a seat at the “top table”—has worn thin. Prestige and influence are now derived from economic strength, wise counsel and peacekeeping rather than an ability to destroy en masse. So, against this background, Britain does not need to set up and maintain an ever-ready successor to Trident.
A second question is how can we make any positive contribution to dialogue over the reduction of nuclear weapons if the only example we set is to be a wholly negative one? The claim that Britain must guarantee its security in all circumstances is a line of argument not lost, I imagine, on those who now wish to acquire such weapons for themselves.
The third question is whether Britain’s government is politically trapped. Could it really defy popular feeling, which could so easily—and certainly would—be whipped up to claim that the government was giving away Britain’s guarantee of security? In political terms it could be dangerous for any party to propose such a step, and therefore easier to let a planned successor to Trident go ahead. But there is a sensible way round this political impasse. We should give urgent consideration to adopting more practical, realistic and hopefully cheaper ways of warding off any likely threat to our nation, which at the same time would make Britain a leader in the non-proliferation dialogue.
To begin with we should recognise that there is no need for a nuclear-firing submarine to be at sea at all times in order to demonstrate an effective deterrent capability. Periodically one boat would have to be at sea for training purposes, and at others a submarine could put to sea at short notice if the threat level were perceived to have increased. Some worthwhile economies would arise from a system of variable readiness. The existing Trident programme could be kept on for longer, which would help stave off the political threat. More importantly, however, it would allow breathing space in which to develop, hand in hand with improved satellite and terrestrial intelligence, a more relevant, economical and useable system.
Britain’s current nuclear arms capability is geared towards immediate response. Stepping down from this state of preparedness would be a sound and progressive step. Britain should not prolong its Cold-War nuclear stance, but instead present a better-balanced and more relevant defence programme. Moreover, by making a further and significant contribution to the general dialogue for multinational nuclear disarmament, it would enhance the value of our counsel in international affairs and as a key member of the security council.