19 April 2010

A Hawkish Case for Scrapping Trident?

One thing to emerge from the debate is the re-emergence of the Trident programme as an election issue and the differing positions on it. However, what I'm concerned about is that both sides have remained in their corners: the abolitionists cite the cost and, more importantly, the immorality of weapons of mass destruction; the retentionists cite the jobs created by its presence and the need to defend ourselves with the best tools that we can.

These arguments have been well-rehearsed. Indeed, far too well-rehearsed to be persuasive.

What's needed, then, is a foray onto 'enemy' territory: either a progressive, moral case for upgrading Trident, or a hawkish, utilitarian, military case for scrapping the thing. I believe the latter exists and, in this post, I'm going to attempt it. I'm going to take a look at what I perceive to be the threats to national security and assess whether or not Trident can handle them, looking in particular at three approaches: Deterrent, Response and First Strike.

Threat #1: The Old Foes

I do, of course, mean Russia and China, upon whom David Cameron nearly declared war last Thursday. Back in the Cold War, the threat came almost exclusively from them, and came in the form of The Bomb. Neither of these are the case anymore: both powers now rely on the West for trade and investment, and reducing your target market to radioactive cinders is bad for business. Money is the key, and to win any battle with the West, it follows that Russia and China (doubtless along with their fellow BRICs, Brazil and India) will use international trade negotiations to stiff the West. Cut Trident, and there's money for more and better negotiators.

Then there's China's latest wheeze in the ongoing quest to control key natural resources: lovebombing Africa. And, in particular, not being overly squeamish about who they give their cash to - hence contacts with the regime in Sudan. It's not a new idea: both sides in the Cold War saw Africa as an extra front, and sought to build and support favourable regimes. The difference appears to be that despite continued investment in international development, we stopped looking at the international politics. China didn't stop, so it's gaining a foothold. How do you respond to this? Simple. Fight lovebomb with lovebomb. More aid, more money, more contact with (and development of) friendly governments. If the West doesn't do that, China will. Then, when we need to start looking to Africa for resources, we're screwed. Act now: cut Trident, and pump money into the DFID.

Finally, if a confrontation does occur, it would be very easy for either Russia or China to bring us to our knees quickly, without firing a shot. Russian hackers brought down the online infrastructure of the Estonian Government over a row about a war memorial. Given our reliance on the Internet, those same hackers - or their counterparts in China - could do untold damage, and indeed, this is now a feature of modern warfare, to the extent that the brief war in South Ossetia was marked by hacking attempts on both sides, including Georgian hackers briefly bringing down the Russian government's main publicity mouthpiece, Russia Today - echoes of NATO's targeting of the RTS infrastructure in Belgrade during the Kosovo Crisis. This is where the hit's going to come. Prevent this, and you defend the country. Cut Trident, and invest in cyber-security.

So let's take a look at our three pillars: Trident is not going to be a factor in trade negotiations and we certainly can't nuke Shanghai if they stiff us in the next round of talks. Nor is Trident preventing China from investing in places like Sudan, and again, a bomb on Beijing is surely not an option. Similarly, Trident won't deter hackers and nuking Moscow is a disproportionate response to a DOS attack.

In dealing with the Rival Powers, Trident fails.

Threat #2: The Rogue States

This is a far more pressing threat: North Korea has the Bomb and seeks to use it as some sort of geopolitical penis extension; Iran wants it and its President has suggested wiping Israel off the map for a lark. Make no mistake: we do have to do something here, before Tokyo or Tel-Aviv find themselves on the wrong end of a lunatic's weapon.

And imagine, if you will, that you're Kim Jong-Il. You're ready. You've had enough. It's time: you're going to press the button and destroy the capitalist pigs surrounding your nation. So long, Seoul. Toodle-oo, Tokyo. It's nuke time. But just as you're about to press The Button, an aide pipes up:

"Dear Leader! The UK has Trident missiles based on submarines! Should we reconsider?"

Of course, the answer is no. And you resolve to have the aide shot for insubordination.

The bottom line is this: Trident is no deterrent to these people and never will be. You're not dealing with the old two- or three-way contest between wily old leaders trying to gain advantages over one another. These people are nutjobs: an over-promoted taxi driver clinging onto power in Tehran and a pampered Mummy's Boy with insecurities about his height (or lack of it) in Pyongyang. If they want to nuke someone, they're going to nuke them. Deterrence is doomed.

That leaves action. A nuclear first strike is out of the question, and may end up provoking the very thing we want to avoid. A conventional first strike to take out nuclear capabilities is not necessarily out of the question but we have certainly missed that boat where North Korea is concerned. As for Iran, a certain near-neighbour who has good cause to be worried by Ahmedinejad's rhetoric provides a precedent (albeit an uncomfortable one) for dealing with a threat like this. If a strike becomes necessary, is should resemble Operation Opera, the strike against the Osirak reactor. Even that may be considered too much for some, but it's less unacceptable than nuking Iran for what it might or might not have developed.

And in the case of North Korea, it's believed that the time for first strike has been and gone, and that the DPRK already has nuclear capability. If they do use it, can they use it against UK interests? Are there any within range? Probably not, and this is likely to be the case for Iran as well. So were Trident used against them, then the UK's "independent nuclear deterrent" becomes a nuclear retribution on behalf of (or even in the hands of) someone else. This is surely not acceptable on any level.

Again: Trident is no deterrent, it's not suitable for a first strike and its use in a revenge attack is limited. Cut Trident, and beef up conventional and special forces, should it become necessary to put North Korean or Iranian infrastructure beyond use.

Threat #3: Terror

What if 9/11 or 7/7, already devastating attacks, had involved 'dirty bombs'? The nature of 9/11 would have made that highly unlikely, but certainly the case of 7/7 or the Madrid Train Bombings, it wouldn't have been hard to use radioactive material in the bombs had those involved been able to acquire it.

Would Trident have deterred the 7/7 bombers in that case? Of course not: they weren't deterred in the first place and in any case, they were suicide bombers: threats of counter-strikes don't wash.

Would it deter the wider al-Qa'ida network from launching attacks? Of course not. If it did, 9/11, 7/7 and the Glasgow Airport Attack would never have happened.

So what about as a response, or a pre-emptive strike? Well, as a response, the ones who launched the attack would be dead already so any counter-blow would be futile. And whether before or after, the collateral damage of nuking an entire area for the sake of a handful of people would be absolutely unacceptable.

And using against Osama bin Laden is out: we don't even know for sure if he's dead or alive, let lone where to bomb if he is still out there.

Similarly, a bomb against the 7/7 terrorists is out of the question as they were born in the UK: bombing Dewsbury is out of the question. I might be a Lancastrian, but the thought of nuking Yorkshire makes even me go white.

Here, again, Trident doesn't pass the test. In the first instance, we need more support for conventional forces on the ground in Afghanistan: that's more useful in combating extremists like the Taliban. More importantly, while we must always remember to protect our civil liberties, domestic intelligence services are, at times, a necessary evil - as long as its directed against the right people. And even if that's a step too far, then a decent external service with a strong human intelligence resource would be a bonus. Cut Trident, and there's money in the pot for MI5 and MI6 to up their game.


What I've tried to argue is that besides being a moral abomination and a drain on the public purse, Trident simply isn't up to dealing with the threats we face. Trident did have its place in the last century, when the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine was in force, when the world was divided into two armed camps, not too dissimilar from the century before that, when the Great European Powers treated the world as their chessboard. But the game has changed, there are different pieces, different players and different rules. Those who used to understand and follow the deterrence principle themselves can find other ways of hitting us and hitting us hard; those who look to nuclear weaponry or any sort of WMD won't be deterred by the UK's arsenal. And in any case, it's not appropriate either for a military response, let alone a first strike. It's not the best at all - it's not even good enough. It has outlived its usefulness.

In short, Trident is an attempt to handle the 21st Century World Order with 20th Century technology and a 19th Century mindset.

Junk it.


Sophia Pangloss said...

Excellent piece Will. Shame on the our leaders that public debate on this is so squeezed.

Many better ways tae spend what little we have.

Anonymous said...

How about the argument that we the UK live in a American security umbrella which means that we dont have an "independent" deterrent.

Technologically we are dependent on the US and also we would never use or threaten to use them without America's say so.

I know that for a lot of UK politicians especially Labour/Tory ones it is very difficult to admit that we are just an American proxy state when it comes to foreign/diplomatic/military/security policy.

Ted Harvey said...

Good restatement Will of the pointlessness of Trident.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if the UK public finances are revealed after the General Election to be as seriously bad as many of us anticipate, it is likely that the Tories would be more likely than Labour to feel able to take the opportunity to cancel Trident.

Labour would not feel capable as a so-called left of centre party to be able to withstand the onslaught from the Unionist UK Right.

Labour is, moreover, utterly beholden to the Trade Union block and they are not interested in the moral questions around WMDs such as Trident. They are interested only in their members' jobs.

Incidentally I never accepted that Trident even had it place in the MAD period - it was never an independent UK deterrent because as stated it was subject to an ultimate USA sanction. It was also utterly dependent on USA 'goodwill' and co-operation in handing over required technology and components. In addition there were no 'enemies' then (as now) that the UK alone could have feasibly used it against on a unilateral i.e. ‘independent’ basis.

Anonymous said...

Well done Will for coming up with three whole scenarios to take to pieces. Any thought on what might happen if Russia or China were to break up. Or, if there was a potential nuclear stand-off in the Middle East. Or a potential conflict between India and Pakistan. I could go on and on. My point is that you simply don't know what is going to happen. The Trident replacement (one thing that we know for sure is that it wno't be called Trident) has a time line of over 10 years. Are you really ready to say what the state of world geo-politics will be in 10 years. Oh, I bet that you guessed the fall of the Berlin Wall too.