A key argument publicly espoused by those who think Trident should be replaced is that a nuclear weapon provides the ultimate deterrent to any aggressor seeking to invade the United Kingdom. Further, having a such a deterrent will prevent the UK from being subject to nuclear blackmail and be an insurance policy against threats unknown.
So what government or what organisation will threaten the UK with invasion? The UK’s nuclear deterrent did not seem to deter the Galtieri-led military junta from invading the Falkland Islands, a British territory inhabited by British Citizens. What about Putin’s Russia? Despite the Fallon and Hammond rhetoric, a Putin-led Russia poses no military threat to the UK.
The argument that Iran or North Korea are a nuclear threat to the UK is spurious at best, redolent of the 45-minute claim made by Blair and Campbell in the infamous dodgy dossier that attempted to justify the invasion of Iraq. Neither country has the capability to launch any military campaign let alone deliver a nuclear device to the UK. The UK governments possession of a nuclear deterrent has not prevented the leaders of either of these ‘rogue states’ from attempting to develop a nuclear device either.
Another claim by pro-Trident voices is that a nuclear deterrent will prevent actions by terrorist organisations. The suggestion is that terrorist group or a new rogue state could threaten the UK. The UK’s military deterrent did not prevent the 2005 London bombings in London by an Al-Qaeda inspired group. The assessment that terror groups are a threat that can be dealt with by nuclear weapons is false.
Militarily the UK has some 255 nuclear warheads. This is portrayed as a major element of NATO and the West’s nuclear deterrent. The US has some 4,500 warheads and France 300; the UK’s contribution to this total deterrent is 5%. Operationally this is just one submarine with 16 missiles that can deliver a total of 128 warheads. Militarily this is insignificant. Militarily this is not justifiable. Militarily it is assessed there are no circumstances that a UK Prime Minister would use Trident or any replacement unilaterally.
But what about the future? Pro-Trident replacement supporters claim that the deterrent is needed to deter possible future threats we do not yet know about. So what countries could threaten the UK in the future? Germany? France? It is assessed that there are no friendly or allied states that present any threat of invading the UK. Even the extremist right and left wing parties in the UK’s nearest neighbours are in no way threatening the UK with military action. Simply put there are no military threats to the UK that Trident could deter in the present, or in the operational lifespan of any Trident replacement.
Trident will be replaced. Not for any rational military or intelligence led reasons but purely for political reasons. The Conservatives are using this issue to help sustain their ongoing narrative that a Corbyn-led Labour is weak on National Security and a direct threat to the security of UK families. Trident is a £100 billion campaign tool that the Conservatives hope will convince UK undecided and swing voters in 2020 to vote Conservative or at least not vote Labour.
A further reason why Trident will be replaced is that both Conservative and Labour politicians like to think being a government minister of a nuclear state gives clout in diplomacy, and maintains the illusion that the UK is one of the great powers in the world. This is gesture politics that should not have any influence on a decision to replace Trident, but politicians like their egos boosted.
The UK nuclear weapons programme has always has been and always will be a politics led project in no way connected to any credible military or intelligence-led reasons.
Phillip Clarke is a Veteran For Peace and a former British Military Intelligence Analyst