The House of Commons is set to vote later today on the principle of sustaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. Ubiquitously dubbed ‘Trident’, the vote is actually on the merits or otherwise of replacing the Royal Navy’s current fleet of four Vanguard-class submarines (SSBNs) that carry the Trident D5 ballistic missile with a like-for-like replacement, dubbed Successor. Such a vote is already overdue: Tony Blair’s 2006 White Paper recommended that development of a new SSBN class should begin to enter service in the early 2020s, a target that has already slipped by a decade, if safe and secure continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD) patrols are to be sustained.
Today’s vote is in some ways less momentous than it seems. On the one hand, it still stops short of providing ‘Main Gate’ procurement authorisation to proceed with construction of a full, four-boat Successor fleet. On the other, design and development work is already underway anyway, with many long-lead items for the new submarine class already ordered under the auspices of prior Parliamentary authorisation. However, the crux of today’s Commons debate lies in its politics: this will be the vote that provides a mandate for the continuation of Britain’s nuclear deterrent to Prime Minister Theresa May, with the backing of many Labour MPs, in the face of the bitter opposition of a long-time CND-supporting Leader of the Opposition.
As part of the debate, numerous criticisms of the UK’s existing nuclear arrangement – both the four-boat ‘Trident’ fleet specifically, and British nuclear arms in general – are already being aired. Here are the eleven main arguments you are likely to hear in today’s debate.
1. The Americans will defend us – and Germany/Japan seem to do okay without.
The vast military power of the United States is indeed still committed to the defence of Europe, Britain included, via NATO. Yet neither Britain nor France has ever wholly trusted that a US president would risk New York or Chicago for London or Paris – and we have ample post-1945 evidence of the United States very prudently putting its own interests ahead of Britain’s. The UK – like France – has therefore sought a hedge against US abandonment that also makes the overall deterrent posture of NATO more credible (because not all decisions are in American hands). The post-1945 under-armament of Germany and Japan, meanwhile, has itself been enabled by the extended deterrent guarantees of allies. So amongst major European powers, the ‘German model’ is not some noble alternative to the Franco-British posture, but rather a direct and desirable outcome of that very posture. As new great powers rise to challenge the United States, there will be more onus on key US allies taking more responsibility for their own defence.
2. It’s not independent – the Americans won’t let us fire it.
The British nuclear programme is indeed shot-through with US support. This applies most obviously to the Trident missiles themselves, which are drawn from a US-sourced co-owned stockpile, but it applies elsewhere too. US contractors currently operate much of the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment. There is reportedly so much US-led co-development in areas like the warhead, re-entry vehicle, and firing fuse that the programmes are close-to-indistinguishable. However, logistical dependence on US support is not the issue – the question is, does Britain retain operational independence over its system? The answer is that it does: at no node in the UK firing chain could US officials prevent a launch by vetoing a decision or withholding information. And if the US withdrew logistical support to UK Trident, Britain could work to make-up those shortfalls – at significant expense, to be sure – before the system became ineffective.
3. The Cold War is over – and nukes are irrelevant to modern threats.
First, one of the reasons that interstate war is now regarded as a relatively low-salience threat compared to the likes of terrorism – which still, even at its most awful, kills a tiny fraction of what great-power warfare did prior to 1945 – is because of the very effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. If a house is cool in hot weather, one does not conclude that the coolness demonstrates the irrelevance of the air conditioner. Second, being of limited utility against much terrorism is not a case against deterring major states: the fact that it cannot also treat heart disease is not a case against chemotherapy. Third, it is not the case that nuclear weapons are ‘irrelevant’ to modern threats: the possibility of retaliation against the supplier state reduces the likelihood of nuclear/biological/chemical weapons being passed to a terrorist group by a hostile intelligence agency, say, while the prospect of retaliation using the state’s full spectrum of ‘real-world’ weapons may be significant in deterring the most potentially catastrophic of cyber-attacks. Those ‘modern threats’ also include an array of states with powerful conventional and nuclear forces whose future intentions towards Britain are at best uncertain and at worst openly hostile.
4. We could make do with a lesser system – Trident is overkill.
Building a ‘part-time’ submarine-based deterrent, using only two or three submarines, makes no sense at all: it still comes with the majority of the support/infrastructure/development costs, in exchange for a system that provides an incentive for adversaries to attack Britain during a crisis. Systems reliant on ground-based silos or air-launched weapons are similarly vulnerable, while anything less than a ballistic missile – such as relying on cruise missiles or free-fall bombs, as is often proposed – may not penetrate the air defences of a major power (i.e. the sorts of states for which nuclear deterrence might actually be required). Deliberate ambiguity over nuclear posture can generate much deterrent effect, as with the Israeli arsenal, but it is still less than the secure second-strike retaliatory assuredness of CASD – and it comes with a heavy price in terms of political transparency and accountability.
5. We’d never use them.
First, ‘use’ does not mean ‘detonate’ – and by exerting a chilling effect over all possible major power confrontations, nuclear weapons are being ‘used’ every day. Second, the two prime ministers to have been explicit on the subject, James Callaghan and David Cameron, have both stated that they would indeed have ordered nuclear use – although they may both have been bluffing, of course, because that is what deterrence requires. Third, imagining the conditions in which nuclear retaliation may become likely should take the certainty out of any confident assertion that they would not be used – after all, the decision may come down to a grief-stricken and vengeful prime minister, entombed under the crater-formerly-known-as-London, or a submarine command team, alone at sea.
6. We can’t afford them – the money would be better spent elsewhere.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that any area of public spending does not entail trade-offs with others. But the government’s estimate that the costs of Successor will average around 6 per cent of the defence budget (0.13 per cent of government spending) suggests a through-life cost for a four-boat CASD-capable SSBN fleet of 0.047 per cent of GDP – based on OBR projections for average state spending – over the 2014-65 period in which the submarines are being developed and operated. Hardly terrible value, given that few things would harm Britons’ health or education – two oft-heard preferred areas for the fiscal savings of Trident cancellation – more than a return to the major-power conflict that nuclear weapons presently render less likely.
7. They’re evil and illegal.
The easy rebuttal to this point is that inanimate objects clearly cannot have moral agency. The harder question is whether the human endeavour that they embody is necessarily evil, or whether – once this technology existed – there is a moral calling in ensuring that it is stewarded and deployed as best it can be to promote peace rather than conflict. The International Court of Justice did advise in 1996 that nuclear use would be inconsistent with Just War principles – but, to make an obvious point, we would only approach the point of nuclear use in scenarios wherein international-legal constraints and norms had long since failed anyway.
8. It’s just about status – we should stop our post-imperial playing at superpower.
Britain’s nuclear acquisition and retention has always been bound up with status concerns. Bolstering one’s capabilities to improve one’s bargaining position is not irrational, however. And more basically, it is a category mistake to contend that status concerns ‘disprove’ the existence of a valid security rationale for nuclear retention.
9. They don’t work – deterrence has failed, and accidental/inadvertent use is likely.
There have indeed been high-profile cases of deterrence failure, although except in the case of Israel – which had a limited nuclear posture at the time – these are more likely when only peripheral interests are at stake, rather than the core of state survival. Accidental or inadvertent escalation to detonation are real concerns around the world, meanwhile, particularly as we have entered a ‘second nuclear age’ of new nuclear powers with potentially weaker command-and-control systems. However, these are not risks meaningfully altered by the existence or otherwise of Britain’s small nuclear arsenal.
10. We could trigger multilateral disarmament by setting a good example.
A cherished view of unilateral disarmament advocates in Britain, this argument relies on the questionable causal logic that Britain renouncing its nuclear weapons will somehow peer-pressure others into following suit, regardless of their own rationales for nuclear possession (which may have little or nothing to do with a perceived threat from the UK arsenal).
11. Trident’s on borrowed time – new technology is rendering submarines obsolete.
An in-vogue critique, this argument contends that autonomous naval vehicles (‘drones’), cyber capabilities, oceanic ‘transparency’ technologies (e.g. the movements of marine micro-organisms as large masses pass beneath them), and improved ballistic missile defences will between them render SSBNs and the missiles they carry vulnerable to detection and destruction before they can retaliate. If submarines cannot evade or survive enemy action, then they obviously do not constitute the secure second-strike retaliatory capability that is the core of stable deterrence. These emerging technologies certainly will constitute a challenge for SSBN operators to overcome, and may indeed one day bring the submarine’s position as the survivable nuclear delivery method of choice to an end. But all four such emerging technologies face potentially insurmountable technical mountains of their own before they come close to being able to track reliably an SSBN in the open ocean. Such an oscillation between offensive and defensive capabilities is the normal order of things: the rise of anti-air weaponry did not herald the immediate obsolescence of the fighter plane; it simply explains why a Eurofighter Typhoon looks quite different to a Spitfire or Sopwith Camel. So too will it be with future nuclear delivery systems, including the four new submarines that the Commons will vote to support later today.
Dr David Blagden is a lecturer in the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter. He tweets @blagden_david.