Monday, 22 July 2013

Trident: To Renew Or Not

There have been a lot of opinions expressed on the somewhat thorny subject of whether we should retain Trident.  Recently the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has said it would be ‘naïve or reckless’ not to have a like-for-like replacement, but this was countered by Danny Alexander accusing him of trying to rubbish the LibDem report which called for a reduction from four to three submarines.

I’ve never served in the armed forces, due to having been born disabled.  However I have had a life long interest in military issues, and my main field of expertise is in IT, and therefore I think in clear logical lines.  This then is my opinion on the issue.

First though I think it’s important to explain why Trident is/was required.  After World War II relations soured between the Soviet Union and other Communist states of the world, and the United States and its allies.  This resulted in a – for the most part – non aggressive stand off.  I say for the most part because there were occasions when the Cold War - as it became known - gained rather more heat; Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Oman for example and I’m sure there are others I’ve forgotten.

During the same period the fledgling nuclear arms development increased exponentially to a point where the countries involved had enough power at their disposal to destroy each other many times over.  That this did not happen between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s / early 1990s is due almost exclusively to the concept of MAD.

MAD for those unaware of it stands for Mutually Assured Destruction.  It is on the face of it a very simple concept.  If country A launches a nuclear missile at country B, country B will detect the launch and have enough time to launch its own missiles before those from country A hit.  Thus both countries are assured of being destroyed, hence Mutually Assured Destruction.

Trident as a weapons platform is key to the MAD concept and indeed is the cornerstone of the UK’s MAD policy.  Its only purpose is to launch nuclear missiles at a hostile foreign nation state.

So, that then is the background, admittedly an extremely basic version of it, to why Trident was created and what it does.

This is where all the discussion and argument starts, so the following is my view:

1. Trident is a single purpose system, and its purpose is one which no longer has any use in 21st Century conflicts.  The government clearly do not believe we will ever come into conflict with a nation state ever again or they would not be reducing our army to a level below that of 1813 following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

2. As above Trident is a single purpose system, and the recent Defence Spending Review was ostensibly aimed at cutting costs in the Armed Forces.  With a finite budget, and reducing one at that, I do find it curious that the government chooses to spend a significant amount of that budget on a weapons system which is designed for a very specific use, and only then if one specific circumstance should arise.  Would it not be better to spend the same money on alternative systems which have multiple uses?

For £6bn you could train 162,162 Paras, 230,769 Guards or 272,727 Infantry.  Between the ranks of Private and Sergeant average pay is £25734.50 pa so for your £6bn you could employ 233,150 soldiers of enlisted rank for a year or 23,315 for 10 years.  Soldiers, and indeed all armed forces personnel, are infinitely flexible within the obvious boundaries of their training.

An aircraft carrier.  The obvious use is to transport aircraft to somewhere where you wish to fight, or have forces on the ground in need of support.  However, what about a simple diplomatic prod?  If you park an aircraft carrier off the coast your opposite number is likely to become more interested in listening to you.  Or a humanitarian disaster?  An aircraft carrier could be a mobile hospital or the base for relief efforts; ships are able to carry far more weight at once - albeit slower - than even the biggest aircraft.

Let’s put it very simply.  If you are offered a choice between a spear, and a sword and shield which would you choose?  If you choose the spear you will be able to kill one enemy who throws a spear at you and you see it thrown in enough time to throw yours and hit them.  However if you choose the sword and shield you will be able to block the spear, close up to and threaten them with the sword.  Also once you’ve thrown the spear you have no weapons or defences, whereas you can pull a sword out of an enemy and attack someone else with it, or defend yourself from their attack.

In a nutshell if you have a finite budget you don’t want to spend it on a weapon with only one use, and that use only under one set of specific circumstances, you ought to look at systems with a variety of purposes – in military parlance a force multiplier.

3.  Over the last few years successive governments have been excusing inroads into what some believe to be our personal privacy - by forcing ISPs to retain more and more information on what we as individuals do online - by using the ever present ‘National Security’, and in fact some reports have said that the battleground of the 21st Century will be online with cyber terrorism and enemies attacking each others’ communications networks etc.  This poses the obvious question, in that context what use is a missile carrying submarine when the threat is from a cyber terrorist?

4.  Actual terrorism.  Again governments explain to us that they want increased numbers of CCTV cameras, biometric passports, compulsory ID cards – although thankfully that has been dropped as in my opinion all it would do is help identify the victims - more stop and search powers for the police.  The reason for this is to combat the ever growing threat of terrorism.

The government consistently tell us that the reason for their ever growing insistence on knowing everything about our activity - online and offline - is to combat terrorism.  Terrorism, they tell us is the biggest threat in the 21st Century.  Not nuclear attack from a nation state.

Terrorists have no nation state.  Terrorists have no nuclear missiles.

Trident can only launch retaliatory missiles against a nation state.  So, again, why do we need it?

Trident’s purpose is to be deployed in one specific set of circumstances.

a) Another nation state has a nuclear arsenal within range of the UK.
b) Diplomatic relations have degraded between the two to a point where armed nuclear conflict is a real possibility.

In my opinion, in modern international politics and diplomatic relations, the United Nations would have stepped in long before condition B were ever met.  It would also involve all nations concerned having forgotten the lessons of Chernobyl – radiation knows no borders, with the clear lesson that if you’re close enough to launch missiles, you’re also close enough for the air currents at some point to bring the radiation back to you.

In my opinion, the answer is obvious.

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