If there’s a wrong way to do it…

Light bloggage this week due to workload and the impending onset of a head cold, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to comment on the vote to ‘in principle’ commission a replacement for Trident and Tom Watson’s suggestion that the following, heavily fisked, points make the argument in favour of this expensive commitment.

1. We live in an uncertain world. No one knows what enemies we might face in the next 30 years.

Sorry, Tom, but that’s too much of a straw man not to be challenged.

The world is full of uncertainties – it always is. And that’s why your statement is, frankly, absurd, because the same thing could have been said 50 or 100 years ago years ago and will, no doubt, still be said in 50 and 100 years time. You might as well argue that we need to upgrade Trident because the sky is blue or because the moon has a synodic period of 29.5 days or thereabouts for all that it informs the debate.

We may not know precisely who are enemies may be over the next 30 years but we can make some reasonable predictions about the general direction that the world is heading over that period in geopolitical terms.

China will grow to rival the US in terms of its economic power and has also shown a willingness to turn that to its political advantage in Africa.

Russia will remain a major player on the strength of natural resources and the position that gives it in the global energy markets and, again, has shown that it is willing to use that economic power as political muscle/leverage.

India will also become a major player – not to the extent that China looks likely to attain, but certainly on a par with the major European economies (UK, Germany, France), as may Brazil.

Over the time-spans we’re talking about here, those are the major issues that we should be factoring in to our decisions on policy in this area.

The nuclear era may have coincided with a period of marked ideological conflict – first the ‘Cold War’ and latterly the emergence of political Islamism as an ideological force and political antagonist – but the true lesson of history is that ideological conflicts are both a relatively recent invention and, if one takes the long view, a transient phenomenon. What is a constant in human history is conflict over control of territory and resources – if you want to know where the long-term tensions and geopolitical fault-lines are likely to emerge then you simply have to remember that ‘Its about the economy, stupid.’

Such enemies as do emerge over the next 30 to 50 years will come from, or as a byproduct of, economic and political rivalry between the major powers, rivalry that centre’s squarely on access to and control of key strategic resources, chief amongst which will be the world’s hydrocarbon resources, particularly oil and natural gas. That alone suggests that the Middle-East and Caspian basin will remain the focal point of ‘Great Game’ and the primary theatre of conflict during this period as the major powers vie for access to and control of the region’s natural resources, simply because it is one critical region, in resource terms, that is not fully under the control of one of major contending powers.

2. Such enemies could be armed with nuclear or other mass-destruction weapons.


Other mass-destruction weapons?

Surely you’re not trying to suggest that the use of nuclear weapons would be a proportionate response to an attack by a ‘rogue state’ in which chemical or biological weapons were used?

In all seriousness, let’s try not to conflate the question of the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent with that of other types of ‘mass-destruction weapons’, especially chemical weapons where any moderately industrialised nation could rapidly develop a basic, if crude, capability within a matter of months simply be retooling part of their existing industrial capacity.

Sorry, but you cannot realistically draw comparisons between nuclear weapons and crude mustard gas/chlorine-based weapons, the technology for which belongs to the 19th Century.

Let’s stick to the question of nukes, here, and leave out the issue of biological and chemical weapons. Its a debate worth having, but its its a different debate to that currently at hand.

3. Aggressive dictatorships have few scruples than liberal democracies. They are far more likely to use nuclear weapons if they possess them.

Pure assumption.

Sorry, Tom, but it does remain a fact that the only nation to actually use nuclear weapons, the USA, is a liberal democracy and not an aggressive dictatorship (despite what anyone might actually think of its current president).

That’s not the wisecrack that it might, on first sight, appear nor am I intending to take a crude ‘shot’ at the US, here. My reason for noting that only the US have ever actually used nuclear weapons is to make what I consider a very serious point – if and when push comes to shove, scruples have little or nothing to do with the decision to deploy nuclear weapons or not.

If one deploys the argument that we live in an uncertain world and cannot predict who our enemies might be in 3o years time then, if one is being honest, one has to take the view than any nation state that possesses a nuclear capability is a potential threat – and that include current allies like France, and yes, the United States of America.

And before anyone even thinks of starting off down the ‘anti-Americanism’ road, let me just point out that all I am saying here is that if we cannot predict the future then we cannot say with absolute certainty what America or Britain may be like in 30 years time or how our relationship with each other may change during that time. Its a matter of simple logic and a modicum of applied realpolitik and nothing more – however its spun for a domestic audience, foreign policy is still a dog-eat-dog business in which its every nation state for themselves and the devil take the hindmost.

No matter how strong the UK’s ‘special relationship’ might be at the present time the future offers no guarantees it will remain that way or even that we will not become enemies in the future. And if one is making policy decisions about the UK’s defensive capabilities that stretch 30-50 years in the future then, in purely rational terms, one has to concede that, over that kind of timescale, America is as much a potential enemy as any other nation state on the planet.
Getting back to the main point, Tom’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ argument about aggressive dictatorships may be rhetorically useful for a politician speaking to a domestic audience but in terms of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence it is a complete irrelevance.

Nuclear deterrents do not operate on the basis of scruples or of nominally assigning degrees of risk to potential enemies based on the political character of their government. They operate simply by ensuring that potential enemies understand that you can hit them just as hard as they can hit you, if not harder.

In real terms, what we’re dealing with here is pure gangsterism, albeit on a global scale. What kind of government an enemy has and how aggressive or dictatorial that government might be has no real bearing on whether they will or will not deploy nuclear weapons – all that matters is whether or not that course of action would amount to mass suicide, which is precisely what possessing a nuclear deterrent is designed to do, ensure that only some who is completely suicidal would ever use nuclear weapons against a similarly-armed enemy.

Citing the potential threat offered by aggressive dictatorships as justification for maintaining a nuclear deterrent may be politically expedient when talking to a domestic audience, but in reality any nuclear power, even one that is currently our closest ally on the world stage, is a potential threat and it would be more honest and more illuminating, I think, to admit that and permit the public to chew over its implications.

4. No amount of conventional force can compensate for the military disadvantage faced by a non-nuclear country against a nuclear country.

Again, that’s not strictly true, Tom.

Destructive as nuclear weapons are, the extent to which they act to counterbalance a marked inferiority in conventional forces still depends very much on the type and number of weapons that a country has available for use and the kind of delivery systems they have in place. There is a world of difference between facing off against a country that has a modern strategic thermonuclear capability (i.e. ICBMs and H-bombs) and one that possesses a very limited number of short range tactical fission weapons of a conventional design – and without open assistance from one of major powers, any new entrants to the nuclear club over the next 30 years will have access only to the latter and not the former.

The biggest ‘threat’ in terms of nuclear proliferation lies not in states seeking nuclear capabilities for offensive purposes, to establish regional pre-eminence or even, as one suspects is the case with North Korea, as a vanity project for a dictator of questionable sanity, but rather in the massive imbalance in conventional forces vis-a-vis the United States. The sad truth is that there is no greater incentive for smaller nations to seek to join the ‘nuclear club’ than the overwhelming might of America’s conventional forces .

Where we’re moving towards is an era of asymmetric deterrents – smaller nations like Iran (and others) seeking to develop a tactical/battlefield nuclear capability in order to deter the possibility of an attack by conventional military forces several orders of magnitude above anything their own conventional forces could hope to defend against.

America is the current focal point for this kind of thinking, not just in Iran but in other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, but as and when China starts to approach the US in terms of its economic, political and military muscle, we may see much the same thing amongst nations bordering their traditional sphere of influence. India and Pakistan, of course, already have their own small nuclear capability, but one could well see that countries like Malaysia and Indonesia considering taking the same road in future if they begin to perceive China’s growing influence as a threat to their national interests.

It’s against that background that we need to making our assessments of whether we need a nuclear capability in the future and, if so, what kind do we actually need.

Giving up the nuclear deterrent would entail a massive gamble that this country will never face a nuclear strike or attack by a major military power. It’s a risk that no responsible government should ever take.

We agree on one thing, certainly. Giving up our nuclear deterrent would entail a massive gamble. Like it or not, the nuclear genie has been out of the bottle for more than sixty years, and there’s no putting it back in. Nuclear weapons and a nuclear deterrent are a fact of life and, being realistic, the only feasible way of moving to position in which nation states do not possess such a deterrent would be to develop a global deterrent under the aegis of a supranational organisation like the UN or a very unlikely future NATO that included in its membership all five of the original nuclear powers (USA, Russia, China, France and the UK).

One of the paradoxical aspects of this whole debate, in terms of opinions within the Labour Party, is that one suspects that of those who are most vocal in their opposition to the renewal of Trident, or even the retention of any independent nuclear capability, are also those most likely to castigate the present government (with some considerable justification, admittedly) for having been to slavish in riding the coat-tails of US foreign policy.

In reality, in a ‘nuclear world’, a genuinely independent approach to foreign policy is possible only by one of two routes, either one gives up any aspirations of being a significant player on the global scene, or one accepts as a matter of necessity, the shelter offered by someone else’s ‘nuclear umbrella’, with all the constraints and strategic limitations that go with it.

That’s not the real question here though, Tom. The real question is whether a replacement for Trident is kind of weapons system we actually need and should be committing to – and that where the government should have consulted much more widely and committed themselves to an open public debate.

Trident is a strategic weapons system, designed and developed to fight (or rather deter) enemies with a similar capability. It a product of the Cold War and of Cold War thinking, pure and simple.

The problem I have with our committing to its direct replacement is that its value as a deterrent only makes sense if we suppose that our hypothetical future enemy will come from amongst the very few nations that have their own strategic weapons systems; namely the US, France, Russia and China.

If we leave France out of the equation, the reality is that if push really did come to shove, our own independent deterrent offers only a limited compensatory threat to any of the ‘big three’, the US, Russia and China.

It’s a question of scale. Given the size of population, territorial area and nuclear capabilities, we could thrown everything we’d got at any one of those three countries and while they’d take far bit of damage, they’d survive the attack. On the other side of the equation, any one of the three could easily nuke the UK back to Stone Age and, as a small island, we don’t have anywhere particularly where we can run and hide until the shooting match is over. In rational terms, maintaining a strategic deterrent makes no real sense at all, as when it comes to the kind of shooting match in which strategic weapons are deployed, we lose no matter what we’ve got.

What I can see is an argument for maintaining an independent and flexible tactical nuclear capability based around a mix of cruise missiles and short-medium range battlefield systems. That, in the context of the kind of enemies that may emerge over the next 30-50 years whose capabilities are of an order we can ‘deal’ with makes a lot of sense. There are strong, and I think winnable, arguments, for the retention of that kind of capability both in military and political terms and, of course, the cost of such systems would be substantially less than Trident’s £65 billion projected costs for the thirty-year life of the system.

This should have been debated more fully, not because we should be deciding whether or not to maintain an independent nuclear capability but because we should be taking very careful and well-thought decisions about the precise type of capability we need as deterrent in the 21st Century and, as I’ve explained, I’m not convinced by any means that Trident, or rather its replacement, is the right weapons system for our needs.

I am open to be convinced otherwise – feel free to try, Tom, if happen by – but based on my own reading of the main trends in international relations and foreign policy, I suspect that what parliament has agreed in principle this week is the wrong system for the wrong vision of the 21st Century.

13 thoughts on “If there’s a wrong way to do it…

  1. Argument #2 is an interesting one all right. For the record, here’s how the real-world figures break down: 100% of all nuclear attacks to date have been launched by liberal democracies.

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  3. Excellent post Unity.

    One point struck me…

    “Nuclear weapons and a nuclear deterrent are a fact of life and, being realistic, the only feasible way of moving to position in which nation states do not possess such a deterrent would be to develop a global deterrent under the aegis of a supranational organisation like the UN or a very unlikely future NATO that included in its membership all five of the original nuclear powers (USA, Russia, China, France and the UK).”

    I’ve been thinking along similar lines, and keep coming back to fractional reserve banking as a guiding example. Will think some more and blog it this weekend.

  4. A nice rebuke to all those ‘muscular liberals’ that have emerged since Neoconservatism was put on sale by those snake-oil salesmen at The Weekly Standard.

  5. 100% of all nuclear attacks to date have been launched by liberal democracies.

    Perhaps this is a cheap and a tangential point to make, but that’s a dangerous argument, given that the attacks in question were intended to bring a World War to an end, and save x00,000 lives.

  6. …Like the World War wasn’t just about to end a week later with the Russian army sweeping into Tokyo. Couldn’t let that happen, could we? Far better to kill a quarter of a million of the suckers to make sure they surrender to our side.

    This article’s analysis takes account of the fact that our nukes cannot destroy China, while their nukes can destroy the totality GB (even if their losses are 10 to 1 in our government’s favour). This calculus does rely on the little understood fact that governments have no regard for the lives of their citizens. The Chinese military has made this quite clear:


    “”” Echoing threats last made in 1995, Mr Zhu, who has a reputation as a hawk in Chinese military circles, said his country was ready to sustain heavy casualties in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other heavily populated areas.

    “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian,” he said. “Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.” “””

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  8. Given that the world is an uncertain place and nobody can tell what will happen in 50 years, it seems strange to me that we are meant to believe that the missile system we came up with 30 years ago to defend ourselves against the Russians is still the best way to have a nuclear deterrent.

    The only argument I am convinced by is that if you don’t have nukes, people look down on you a bit and it would be bad for the old national prestige. But membership of the “nuclear club” could be achieved much more cheaply; Trident looks not so much like “punching above our weight” as “trying to shit higher than our arse”.

  9. On the plus side, it’s got a cool name. Much cooler than anyone elses. It would be a lot better if our nukes fired from the clockface of Big Ben, but I can live with submarines.

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