Tom Watson’s asking for our thoughts on whether to replace Trident.
While I’m not a unilateralist I’m not fantastically keen on nuclear weapons. (Who is given the indiscriminate and widespread nature of the effect they have.)
But, our government isn’t going to give up nuclear weapons so the realists question is what system do we invest in when Trident needs replacing. My thinking on this has been helped by a debate that Prospect held a couple of issues ago. The format is an exchange of emails between people who have different views. In this case Lewis Page and Rodric Braithwaite.
Page makes the case for renewing Trident arguing that there isn’t a better system for the same price. Braithwaite asks what’s the threat and will Trident be the system to combat that threat. Neither say get rid of the weapons, indeed Braithwaite says:
Of course, some hopefuls believe that if we gave up our “deterrent,” others would follow, and we would begin to live in a safer world. That is a sad illusion. Countries that want nuclear weapons will do what they think they have to do, regardless of our moral example. At the most they would no longer be able to accuse us of hypocrisy when we lecture them about building their own bombs.
So the real argument, in this exchange, is on what system to buy or develop. Page suggests that:
If we do not want American rockets, we will have to develop our own rocket industry from scratch. That would require a real shift in national priorities. The cost would be £100bn or more, as much as a year of social security expenditure. It would also be a lengthy process: it took the French 26 years. Even if we started tomorrow we probably wouldn’t be in business until 2030, in which case we’d have to extend Trident anyway.
Braitwaite then argues that ballistic rockets are only one form of delivery and we could instead look to cruise missiles, which he argues are likely to be more independent, and can be deployed in a more flexible manner. He doesn’t, however, say they would be a cheaper alternative than replacing Trident.
I’m not in a position to judge the nature of the threat Britain might face in 30 or 50 years. Who in the 1980s would have considered North Korea, Pakistan or Iran as potential nuclear states? So the question for me is whether having the bomb could conceivably act as any sort of deterant, and if so what are circumstances in which it would or could be used?
As far as I can see its only useful against other states, and the only time it could ever be used is when they have used their nukes on us.
In those circumstances for deterrence to work the state contemplating firing their nukes at us would have to be clear that this would lead to retaliation, and that they would not be able to stop the bombs.
Which, as far as I can tell means ballistic missiles, which means Trident.