Thursday, 23 April 2015

What good is a nuclear deterrent that doesn't deter?

On Monday, the first of the East Renfrewshire hustings took place at St. Ninian's High School, organised by Eastwood Ecumenical Peace & Justice Forum. One of the issues that was raised was the question of the renewal or non-renewal of the UK's Vanguard submarines, the vessels that carry Britain's Trident nuclear warheads and which are based on the Firth of Clyde.

A lot of people have strong views on nuclear weapons. Some think it is inherently immoral to possess, let alone use them, while others think they are vital to our national security. This creates an unhelpful impasse, where there is little room for common ground.

It has long been my view that the question of the nuclear deterrent has to be looked at in more dispassionate and calculated terms than those of the current debate. Not to do this means that the deterrent is renewed almost by default, without giving proper consideration to the tangible defence advantage it purports to offer.

At the hustings, both Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy and Tory candidate David Montgomery described Trident as a "nuclear deterrent". It is almost taken for granted, even by those in favour of multilateral disarmament, that Trident is in fact a deterrent. I must confess, however, that I cannot see how this is the case.

The dilemma

I asked an admittedly multi-pronged and complicated question, but one that this ultimately boils down to. The question is this:

Is there a foreseeable or even plausible set of circumstances where:

1. The UK is prepared to fire a nuclear weapon at an enemy, AND
2. The US is not prepared to fire a nuclear weapon at the same enemy, BUT
3. The US is nonetheless content to permit the UK to fire a nuclear weapon at the enemy in question?

I suggested to the room that no such scenario exists. If I am right, then it also takes our enemies, current, future, real or hypothetical, no more than a matter of minutes to reach the same conclusion. If they don't think that any action they take will result in, but only in, a UK nuclear missile being fired at them or their people, then no actions, nuclear or otherwise, are deterred by having Trident-armed nuclear submarines. Put simply: it is not a deterrent. The game is a bogey.

Phantom threats

The response from both Jim and David was to insist that we do not have a crystal ball, and that we cannot know what kinds of threat we might face in the future. Well, fine, but by the same sentiment should the NHS stock an expensive vaccine for a pandemic-strength disease that has a 0.00000000001% chance of killing a million people, or should it spend the same money on something more likely to be called upon to save as many lives? Both Jim and David then admitted they could not think of the set of circumstances in which, hypothetically, the UK would fire a nuclear weapon.

Criteria for use

If anything, something that Jim went on to say simply strengthened the point. He said that the UK has a clear policy of adopting only a second-strike policy and that it would only fire a nuclear weapon against another nuclear power. This is, if you will pardon the pun, a "striking" admission. First, it narrows down the potential list of targets to Russia, the USA, China, France, Pakistan, India, North Korea, Israel and possibly Iran.

Given that Russia, the USA and China all have enough nuclear weapons to annihilate the UK it is reasonably safe to say none of their military activities are deterred by the possibility of Ed Miliband pressing the red button. Given their missile defence systems and the fact that Trident is US technology, it's actually fairly likely that a second strike attack, even if called-upon, would be intercepted, thus futile for what remains of the UK following such an attack. In the specific case of the USA, they actually service and make the parts for the UK's warheads, meaning our ability to use it as an independent deterrent is questionable at best.

The prospect that France would fire a nuclear weapon against the UK is so utterly ridiculous given the levels of military, diplomatic, economic and political cooperation between our two countries, as not to be worth a second mention. If Angela Merkel doesn't need nuclear weapons to stop France using their's against Berlin, neither do we.

India and Pakistan, only have nuclear weapons to re-enforce the principle of mutually assured destruction against one-another. Neither of these countries is going to attack the UK with a nuclear weapon in the next 30 years (remember, Vanguard subs are only going to take 17 years to replace) and the kind of geopolitical changes that would be required for this to be a plausible situation are such that the UK would be at the back of the queue in any decision by Western powers to deploy nuclear weapons.

North Korea: a country which lacks even the missile technology to hit the USA. If we are adopting a second-strike policy, they're never going to use a nuclear weapon against us, because they literally can't.

Israel: this one entails a combination of all the earlier sentiments. There is no way the UK would fire a nuclear weapon on Israel, nor indeed any plausible situation in which Israel would provoke such an attack from the UK but not one of USA, China or Russia too.

Iran: a country which does not actually have a nuclear weapon yet, but whose efforts to enrich uranium have led to talks, not with the British Government, but with the US Government. Even if they did get a nuclear weapon, it would be used, if at all, against Israel, and that would prompt US intervention, rendering the UK submarines irrelevant.

So there's the first problem: if you will only strike nuclear powers, there are no nuclear powers it is conceivably in the interests of the UK to strike, and especially not when it is a second-strike.

Outsourcing our deterrence

The glib response from Jim was to say that such an analysis "outsources" our nuclear protection to the United States. It does no such thing. The point is that the sheer scale and force of the US nuclear arsenal is such that the UK having these weapons is defensively trivial whether the US is friend, foe or otherwise.

The more complex claim, that we would be outsourcing Europe's nuclear deterrent from Putin, is similarly bogus. The US already uses Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey to station several of its air-based nuclear weapons systems. A Russian attack of the scale and kind capable of triggering a British nuclear response, even assuming NATO has broken down as a political alliance, is one in which the US is prepared to use those weapons against the aggressor first.

It is not that getting rid of or failing to replace Trident would make us a sideshow in these conflicts. It is that we already are a sideshow and will be for as long as the US, Russia and China show no interest in eliminating their massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Is a nuke the best deterrent for a nuke?

Another claim made by Murphy was that just as conventional weapons deter conventional attacks, so too nuclear weapons deter nuclear attacks. This is wrong on several levels.

First, one of the major arguments in favour generally of nuclear weapons is that they deter certain types of mass conventional attack. Insofar as nuclear deterrence is a thing, he sidelined one of its speculative benefits.

Secondly, it does not follow that the best way to deter someone from using a nuclear weapon against your country is to have a nuclear weapon. What is more effective at stopping an Iranian bomb from being developed? A Vanguard submarine in the Atlantic with a Union Jack painted on it or an aerial strike-force that targets conventional weapons on uranium enrichment and other military facilities? Which one involves the fewer civilian casualties and less likelihood of global blow-back or escalation? The latter. Which one is cheaper? The latter.

There is a non-zero cost to investing in Trident. Even if we accept that level of military spending is necessary, there are more effective ways we could be spending that money. This is true whether we are dealing specifically with the question of deterring the use of nuclear weapons against us and our allies, or if we are talking more broadly about defence objectives. At the moment, the RAF is having to cannibalise Typhoons just to be able to make a respectable contribution towards international efforts against ISIS in Iraq. What is the point of being a nuclear power if we cannot intervene in global conflict zones that pose actual, serious, material threats to the security of our own people and those of our allies? This is the Defence budget equivalent of the NHS not bothering to stock the flu vaccination in order to pay for 600 police officers to attend the entrance of every hospital.

Multilateral disarmament

On the question of multilateralism against unilateralism, we get to the real nub of the argument. The last stand for someone who admits the UK will never use nuclear weapons but that we should nonetheless keep them or renew them, is that they can be used as a bargaining tool in non-proliferation negotiations with, especially, potentially rogue states like Iran.

Here's the problem though. The Iranians don't care about UK nukes. They care only about Israeli nukes and realistically want to barter only with US nukes. A similar analysis applies to North Korea. It simply isn't credible to conclude that whether or not the UK has a nuclear weapon is going to factor in any major way into those negotiations. If anything, the symbolism of the UK still having a nuclear weapons system is going to be political ammunition for any Iranian leader that walks away from talks or reneges on a non-proliferation deal.

The irrelevance of our weapons as a bargaining tool is only amplified when they are weapons that everyone knows we will never use. If they are reasonably confident that we will not use Trident against them, there is no reason why potential aggressors will see the reduction of UK arms as making them safer.

Too long didn't read?

If we are never going to use Trident except against a nuclear power as a second-strike option, we are never going to use Trident. Even if we could, our conventional responses would achieve the same military goals for fewer casualties at less expense.

If we are never going to use Trident, Trident is never going to deter a military action against us. If Trident is never going to deter military action against us, it does not add to our defensive capabilities.

If it does not add to our defensive capabilities, Trident shifts resources away from other military projects which do. If Trident shifts resources away from projects that add to our defensive capabilities, it is actively harming the safety of UK citizens.

Forget the morality of weapons of mass destruction. Forget even our obligations on non-proliferation in relation to international law. Trident, and indeed any UK nuclear deterrent, fails against its own criteria for success and prevents more successful ways of making us safer from being properly funded. That's why we shouldn't bother renewing it.

My challenge to Jim this week is to tell the voters of East Renfrewshire:

1. What military activities has the UK nuclear deterrent deterred since Trident was commissioned in the 1980s?
2. How remote, hypothetical and implausible must a specific kind of military threat be before we decide not to defend ourselves against it?
3. Can you name one country against which it would ever be in the UK's interests to use a nuclear weapon?

This post was published and promoted by Graeme Cowie (Scottish Liberal Democrats) at Burnfield House, Burnfield Avenue, Giffnock, East Renfrewshire, G46 7LT. The views expressed are Graeme's and his alone and do not necessarily represent those of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

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