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The Trident Nuclear Debate

By James Maclaren, Nov 25 2015 08:05PM

Opposition debates in the House of Commons are rarely remarkable events which recieve great attention.I listened with interest to one such debate yesterday. True the debate was not on Government time, the Chamber was markedly empty except for the SNP whose enthusiasm for unilateralism is legendry and the real person everyone wanted to see, the Leader of the Opposition was predictably otherwise engaged. Nevertheless the motion was an important one; a warm up, probably for a more meaningful exchange of views and opinions which will come as the main gate review of the project to replace the United Kingdoms' s fleet of Trident submarines approaches, probably in December. The debate was not so much memorable for the lack of partcipation, as for the lack of quality of the views expresssed - surprising for a group of people who feel passionate about the subject but somehow one feels should really know more about the subject.

Rapidly the debate became fixed on the economics of the issue. Certainly the capital cost, but more depressingly about workforces, skills, jobs and regional impact. Of course such things have their place but in themselves make neither a case for or against replacing a fleet of strategic ballistic missile submarines. The issue whether or not to have a strategic nuclear deterrent is too important for regional interests. The local economics was interspersed with some amateurish ideas about grand strategy, Britain's place in the world and how Britain would never be allowed to act independently because the Americans would never allow it! Much of the wimsy regarding how Britain should both defend itself and play a part in the global security structure came from the SNP. No doubt their views have the quality of conviction, however, their ideas lack both coherence and understanding. The inability of any of the members to articulate the strategic framework around the requirement for the United Kingdom to have or not have the deterrent was striking.

So lets try and put the strategic context straight.

Trident represents a weapon of complete last resort. Its use would only be contemplated in the most extreme circumstances of national survival. To attempt to rationalise its use in the current range of serious security challenges that confornt this and other countries is to completely miss the point. It could only be used if the threat confronting this country was so dire and so immediate that in order to preserve the last vestiges of our nation no other salvation is possible. It is inconceivable that that threat exists now, but it has in the past and it could in the future. The many references of members to the just published national defence and Security Review and the lack of a role for a Trident or similar system simply emphasises the misunderstanding that abounded in the debate. Of course its role is more limited at present, but a capability such as Trident takes many years to develop and operate, the current capability not just the in-service systems reach back through airborned delivery delivery via the V bomber fleet and reflect many years of developing enabling and targetting technology as well as an extremely sophisticated command and control system. It is meant to be in the background while nations and opponents rise and fall, come and go.

On Trident opponent attempted to link use of the missile system with the British catastrophe at Suez. His theory ran that if the Americans could prevent British military action during that situation, then the operational independence of the current Trident system is fiction. But to compare Suez, an out of area intervention operation undertaken during the decline from Empire, with a war of national survival is frankly ludicrous. More recent history in the case of the Falklands has shown that national action is not always and under all circumstances subordinate to US decision making. Deep down the British know that such a reliance is flawed. After all the Americans have a very selfish approach to conflict preferring only to undertake military action when their own interpretation of national interest is at stake.

A further opponent of Trident from north of the border contributed the view that nuclear deterrence had not stopped the Russian annexation of Crimea. Clearly it escaped him that that is precisely the point. had Ukraine possessed a nuclear deterrent whose flag would be raised above Sevastopol now? Arguably not the Russians. The Cold War created a conventional arms build up in Europe which favourded the then Soviet Union at just about 10 to 1 in everything except aircraft. thee are various views, almost all now academic which question what would have happened if Russia had used their superiority in a conventional conflict on the central front or the NATO flanks. None of them suggest that NATO conventional forces could have resisted more than days or a few short weeks. While no one can conclusively prove that the presence of strategic nuclear forces deterred the leaders of the Warsaw Pact from such an attak aganst the western alliance, it seems reasonable to assume that trading Moscow for pieces of West Germany would not look like success. While memories quickly fade and our politicians begin to lose sight or never experienced what the world looked like during the Cold War, NATO has retained its perspective. All of the NATO countries agree to be part of and welcome the nuclear umbrella provided by the nuclear capable members. Fortunately for the SNP their theory that they could benefit from the protection of a nuclear capable alliance while claiming to have nothing to do with such weapons never had to be explained in detail to their electorate and the NATO member states.

Finally lets be clear, Trident is a political instrument not a military tool. It only works because at the strategic level it is credible in the face of nation state agression. It is credible because it can deliver the lethal power that will always make the price for aggression too high; it is credible only if there is an intent within our political leadership that if the country is ever pushed to the point where national survival is in doubt it would be used and it is credible because it is national and not contingent upon any other government or organisation whose view of national interest and survival may be very different from our own.

Trident is the burgler or fire alarm you have on the side of your house. You hope it never goes off and you hope anyone who eyes your property enviously can see it.

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