Saturday, 11 January 2014

A Nuclear Error

Trident - the UK's semi-independent nuclear missile system - is due for renewal.
(Pic : The Telegraph)
The Cold War over the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent is beginning to heat up.

At present, the submarine-based Trident missile system costs 5-6% of the UK's defence budget - somewhere between £2-2.4billion - to maintain each year (nominal Welsh bill : £100-120million). With a replacement "needed" over the next decade or so, the debate on its future has polarised into three camps.

Firstly, those who support an identical "like-for-like" replacement. Exact costs are hard to pin down, though rough estimates puts the figure in the £25billion range, with £3billion of initial spending already approved by the UK Government (nominal Welsh share : £1.25billion in total). The Conservatives support a like-for-like replacement, though Labour are umming and aahing over it despite kick starting the plans in the first place.

Secondly, there are those who prefer either a reduction in the number of nuclear submarines, or the use of a "lesser system" like cruise missiles. This option has been backed by the Liberal Democrats – and could save several billion pounds (more from Peter Black AM) - though some Lib Dems support going the whole hog.

That "whole hog" is, last but not least, unilateral nuclear disarmament. Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the various manifestations of Green Party all outright oppose a Trident replacement, as do organisations that attract support from several parties like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

It's a particularly heated argument in Scotland. Should Scotland vote for independence in September, any post-independence SNP government is committed to removing Trident from Faslane. Unionist parties have played the jobs card, with around 500 civilians employed at the base to maintain the submarines and missiles.

What are nuclear weapons good for?

Any discussion on the future of a nuclear weapons programme has to first consider the circumstances by which a nuclear deterrent would work, as intended, in the 21stcentury. Primarily, it's to deter a "first strike" attack from another nuclear-armed power – a continuation of the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

M.A.D. - A dead idea since the end of the Cold War?
(Pic :
The only nations that could realistically launch a conventional nuclear strike on the UK are : the USA, China, Israel, Russia, France and India.

Four of them are what the UK would consider allies (USA, France, Israel & India), the UK maintains high level defence agreements with two (USA & France), and two (Russia & China) are enemies-turned-awkward-acquaintances.

Of other nuclear-armed states – Pakistan and North Korea – neither can launch a conventional attack on Europe. Iran doesn't have the capability in terms of missile technology either.

There's now a vested interest amongst global powers to ensure large parts of the world continue to remain habitable. Those interests include : loss of trade, the threat of mass retaliation, and the regional or global environmental and health consequences of a nuclear attack.

A conventional war in Europe is unthinkable nowadays because it would tank the economies of EU member states. The same goes for a global nuclear war. A nuclear strike, against a nuclear-armed state or not, would be the worst foreign policy/military blunder in history.

If it were "limited", or a North Korean-style show of strength, it would be considered a crime against humanity prompting an all out, probably American-led, military response. The regime wouldn't last very long.

If it were a regional attack - as threatened between India and Pakistan at the turn of the century - the results would be catastrophic to the participants. There would be no winners, only millions of charred corpses, a humanitarian catastrophe for the rest of the world to clean up and an atmosphere clouded in radioactive dust. A "deterrence" would be pointless, though our lives (in Europe) would continue, albeit disrupted and with us left navel-gazing with guilt over "what went wrong".

If it were an all-out global attack – as threatened during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or as illustrated in the BBC's 1984 drama Threads – we would be looking at the end of Western civilisation, being reduced to medieval standards of living.

Global numbers of nuclear weapons are heading
in one direction - downwards.
(Pic :
Fortunately, armchair generals aren't in charge and world leaders – on the whole – don't consider nuclear weapons a viable military option, preferring to use them only in defence (no first strike policy).

Israel might have them, and comes under attack constantly, but they can't realistically use them as they would bring consequences upon themselves due to geography. As mentioned before, India and Pakistan have managed to engage in conflict without going so far as to resort to a nuclear first strike.

It's fair to say nuclear weapons prevented the superpowers from going to war directly during the Cold War, but did nothing to prevent proxy wars. It didn't stop Vietnam, the Afghan invasion, the Korean War, the wars in Africa, and it's done nothing good for the Middle East – especially if it results in a nuclear arms race between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Although you can never tell what threats may come in the future, with an ongoing decline in global nuclear weapon stockpiles, the chances of a nuclear attack from a state are negligible.

Modern Nuclear Threats

The modern threat from nuclear weapons – as said by James Arbuthnot back in December – is from a smuggled, probably makeshift, nuclear or radiological device that's set off in a major urban area by terrorist groups or on behalf of an unidentified state player.

You can have all the ICBMs in the world and it wouldn't protect you from that.

Trident would fail. It wouldn't have provided any "deterrence" - the enemies wouldn't fear mutually assured destruction - and there would be no government or nation state to retaliate against.

Why do unstable and unsavoury regimes want nuclear weapons? They've seen what it's done for the prestige of global powers. A nuclear weapons programme is guaranteed to draw the attention of the United States specifically, enabling any state developing that capability to "look the Yanks in the eye". Nuclear proliferation begets more nuclear proliferation.

Why does the UK want a Trident replacement?

In the post-Cold War era, nuclear weapons are about prestige, not defence.
(Pic : The Telegraph)
The answer is that, for some considerable time, the UK has suffered from the international relations equivalent of erectile dysfunction. What was once a throbbing colossus that hammered the world till it was red raw, is now a bit shrivelled, with the City of London's cash and Russell Group universities acting as Viagra.

One way to make it look bigger is having the capability to kill millions of people in an instant, rendering the enemies of Bet Windsor radioactive husks.

Other major powers though, many of which are more advanced than the UK, don't seem to have any hang ups "down there" when it comes to military capabilities. Germany accepts its place in the world, and is largely pacifistic anyway, being able to call on American nuclear weapons if needed. Emerging powers - like Brazil, Canada and Australia - have rejected nuclear weapons.

Similarly, Russia's more keen to use their economic clout when dealing with other powers, not their military. China's military looks increasingly impressive, and China's going to great lengths to prove its muscle, but they're still a long way behind the Americans and will be for some time.

It's all about :
  • Firstly, maintaining a mask that the UK is still a global power in ways that extend beyond the financial clout of London's banks.
  • Secondly, ensuring the UK can keep up with the United States in order to maintain the "special relationship" (the British "independent" nuclear deterrent is, in practice, only a "little bit independent").
  • And thirdly, continuing to justify a permanent UK presence on the UN Security Council (the same goes for France).
That's one hell of an expensive chair.

Supporting Trident's replacement also means supporting its use when the time comes - no matter how miniscule the chances of that happening, it's not 1983 anymore. Proponents of a replacement are putting their names towards that, while the UK Government is considering doing so on all our behalves.

I wouldn't want my name associated with an ability to cause a genocide and ecocide that would make the Holocaust look like a dry run. It's like building a network of prison camps at great public expense but thinking it's OK because they'll "never be used anyway". It's mad.

Let's construct a tower in Wales that scrapes the upper stratosphere, makes a deafening "AWOOGA" noise on the hour, every hour, and can be heard in Moscow. It's about as much use as a Trident replacement and would probably cost a similar amount to build.

There's also, of course, an inate hypocrisy about lecturing the world about WMDs whilst going to great lengths to ensure the UK retains them.

How many nuclear weapons should an independent UK have?

An all out nuclear attack on the UK, in 2014, would eventually kill upwards of 50 million people.
The UK Government wants the power to do that to someone else in our name.
(Pic :
One of the most (in)famous questions asked in relation to Welsh independence was, "How many aircraft carriers would an independent Wales have?"

I think I helped answer that – zero.

But you have to ask similar questions when it comes to the role defence plays in UK foreign policy. You can understand replacing aircraft carriers (if they have aircraft), replacing transport aircraft, new helicopters, upgrading cyber security facilities or procuring more advanced equipment for troops.

It's very hard to justify this nuclear chocolate teapot for the same reasons.

In many ways, wars are now about money and resources – thanks to capitalism's victory over Soviet Communism and the resulting increase in global interdependence. So preserving infrastructure and resources as "trophies", or using money to draw concessions from state players, is more important than grinding them into dust through military might. Insurgencies and terrorism is a different matter, but requires a conventional approach.

We're slowly moving into a post-nuclear weapon age, and wars are increasingly going to be more technical, intelligence-led and automated.
If the UK spent a fraction of the money earmarked for a Trident replacement on conventional forces, intelligence or cyber security, it would make a huge difference on the ground.

One sane approach to this - if the UK is determined to retain nuclear weapons capability, and has been mentioned by others - would be to unilaterally disarm, but maintaining the capability, equipment and skills to produce nuclear weapons at a moment's notice (over a period of weeks) if required.

I'm willing to bet their services would never be required.


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