The most disheartening part of the first leadership debate last week was the way both Gordon Brown and David Cameron wrapped themselves in the flag when it came to a discussion about the replacement for Trident, the UK’s nuclear missile system. It is not the place of this blog to advocate replacement or cancellation, but I do think this issue needs discussing in a grown-up non-jingoistic way.
Trident is a submarine-based missile system armed with nuclear warheads. We currently have approximately 200 warheads on four Vanguard nuclear submarines, based out of the Faslane naval base in Scotland. Trident was designed to enable the UK to respond to a massive first strike nuclear attack by a foreign power, namely the Soviet Union. In other words, the Soviets hit us and, because our nuclear submarines are at sea not on land, we could hit them back. The current Trident system has been in operation since the early 1980s and is now reaching its sell-by-date. The cost of replacement is circa £80 billion over its serviceable lifetime.
Why then do you rarely hear this issue being discussed? The answer is that the two main parties do not want to discuss it, which is why they both close down the argument as soon as it comes up, as Brown did last week (“I’ll never leave this country undefended”). Labour is scared of the discussion because of its links with pressure groups like CND which Thatcher ruthlessly used against them in the early ’80s. The Conservatives are scared of the topic because the right wing of the Conservative Party would never forgive a Tory Prime Minister for abandoning our independent nuclear deterrent. Both are worried that the other will paint them as ‘weak on defence’.
Which leaves us with no debate when we actually need answers to some pretty crucial questions:
1: Can we afford it?
In the current economic climate £80 billion is a lot of money. I know you can’t put a price on security, but how at risk are we? Which brings me to point 2.
2: Do we need it?
Every war or insurgency this country has been involved in since 1945 (Korea, Malaysia, the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan) has involved the use of conventional armies with no deployment of nuclear weapons. In what eventuality would the UK Government therefore use the nuclear option?
3: Who will it be used against?
Brown mentioned Iran last week. However, my understanding of geopolitics is that if Ahmadinejad gets a nuclear weapon (and it remains a big ‘if’) he’ll point it at Israel not us. Who are we going to point ours at?
4: Will anybody be mad enough to use it?
When J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, witnessed the first ‘Trinity’ test explosion in 1944 he famously quoted the lines from Bhagavad Gita, “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. Of course he was nothing of the kind because what Oppenheimer didn’t understand then, but became obvious over the coming decades, particularly with the development of the Super Bomb, was that the implications of being the first to use nuclear weapons were so enormous that nobody ever did. Therefore, does a UK Government foresee any circumstances in which we would be the first to strike?
5: Isn’t this out of step with Obama?
The Nuclear Posture Review published by the Obama Administration on April 6th shifts the focus away from a cold war strategy that saw the main threat as coming from Russia or China, recognising the major threat now is from nuclear proliferation or from a terrorist organisation. It also regards having a huge nuclear stockpile as redundant. Why are we going down this route therefore when Obama is going the other way?
There are many across the political spectrum, including individuals like Simon Jenkins, former editor of The Times, along with Conservatives like Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Portillo, none of whom can be called CND apologists, who are openly questioning the need for a Trident replacement, particularly at a time when our conventional forces are so over-stretched. Yesterday in The Times, four senior military commanders questioned its usefulness.
This is a huge issue for this country but the silence is deafening from the major parties whenever the subject comes up. Tonight, when it does, Clegg has to stand firm and ask his opponents for answers to some of the questions above.