British nuclear weapons – why?

I was reading an article on the BBC web site (here) about Trident and its replacement.  All three main parties in Westminster agree on the need (to varying degrees – Lib Debs least) … but as I read it I was left with an overwhelming feeling of ‘why would we?’  Put another way – that of avoiding the investment bias, if we didn’t have an independent nuclear deterrent, would we go and get one?  I am struggling to undertsand why we would – and I don’t speak as someone with an ideological objection to weapons.  Surely there must be a better way to spend the £15-20bn Labour say it would cost over the next decade just to develop the replacement? (with 25 million taxpayers, that’s £6-8000 each).

The logic goes, as far as I can work out, that post cold war, these weapons act as a deterrent to rogue states that are aiming to go nuclear (and there seem to be enough of them, for certain).  The challenge I have with this is that I can’t imagine a scenario likely enough to warrant anything like the cost of this deterrent.

First, you have to believe that such a deterrent would actually deter.  From what I see, quite the reverse happens, and if it doesn’t the results are so unpredictable as to be dangerous.  We have Iran, North Korea, and maybe others hell-bent on obtaining nuclear weapons.  Never mind that part of their ‘logic’ is that they need to protect themselves from over-reaching Western states … the deterrent has existed for decades and yet Saddam still played brinkmanship, Al-Qaeda still attacked America.  Indeed the threat of a nuclear bomb – dirty or real – has been highlighted as a very real risk for both the UK and the US recently.  And, even if you believe that deterring SOME people is good, we live in a very complex world that can create all sorts of unintended consequences – for example, a terrorist organisation needs nuclear materials to build a bomb … so it gets them from someone who is developing their own weapons grade materials just in case, as they don’t trust America et al.

Since terrorists are fairly mobile, and apparently already trying as hard as they can to get and use nuclear weapons, we have to believe that it would stop a state from doing something bad to us.  I honestly can’t see another state invading us as particularly likely in few decade timeframe that is being talked about, so I have to believe that the deterrent is to stop people reacting to us as we act in the world.  For example, I suspect we would have been a lot less willing to overthrow Saddam in Iraq if he could have reciprocally taken out London.  But, this doesn’t seem to be helping with North Korea.

Second, even if it does act as a deterrent, you have to believe that it is the best (or maybe least worst) deterrent.  And, for a deterrent to be real, you have to be prepared to use it.  For nuclear weapons, if Hiroshima and Nagasaki taught anything it is that it has cultural ramifications that last for generations.  I am really struggling to think of a situation where we would know that these ramifications downstream would be so well known that it would be OK to use Trident – and no matter how bad a current situation, you have to think of whether you are making it worse.  We know how hard it is to stop terrorists, and mathematically it isn’t surprising – terrorists need only one attack to succeed, and each attack takes very little resource.  The defender needs to prevent EVERY attack, and the risk of false positives is so high that the costs are huge and the real level of defence can never be that great.  So, anyone want to predict with confidence the impact of massively antagonising large numbers of people who would then be part of a bombed out state?  By analogy, the part of the Iraq war that was important wasn’t the war (which was won easily), it was the post-war reconstruction which was fudged badly.  It was the hearts and minds.

At least one argument might be that this isn’t and can’t be the only deterrence – it is the big stick that allows you talk talk softly.  But, it is a VERY expensive stick, so, well worth working out that you really need it.  So, how can we be so certain that the deterrence is perceived as a real issue by others, and doesn’t carry unintended side effects, to be worth this kind of spend?  I suspect that it is reviewed at length within government, and clearly they wouldn’t be able to publish the real logic for fear of antagonising other nations.  But, I, for one, am deeply sceptical, and if it were my money (oh, wait, it is) I am sure I could find something better to spend it on than that that would provide a better world view of us, and drive down our net risk.  And, in a world of a MASSIVE deficit for the UK, I don’t think we can collectively afford this, or need it.

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One Response to British nuclear weapons – why?

  1. Tim Perkin says:

    Couple of things I think

    The argument for all nations disarming can be not so much about the deterrant of actually using them per se, it is more about the deterrant of making them worth developing. i.e. if nobody else has the bomb, having the bomb becomes a much more appealing proposition (in a stroke you become one of the biggest military influences in the world). whereas as it stands now, the actual usefulness of the bomb is minimal due to MAD.
    However given that we know the US and Russia are not going to instantly dis-arm just because we do, this doesn’t wash for the UK as a selfish entity. But then if you take that line there is a whole load of other foreign policy decisions that selfishly we could choose not to do (accept refugees, give foreign aid).

    Cutting trident (like cutting any other part of the civil service) will cost a lot of jobs. (probably my brother’s included!). Highly skilled jobs that also foster a strong civil nuclear, and other defence capabilities.

    I expect being a nuclear power also adds a certain amount to the political “brand” of the UK. Whether this is worth the money is another question. I expect it makes politics and international diplomacy for those involved more interesting though.

    The US probably wants us to have it, and so it’s probably wrapped up into larger more complex deals around sharing military technology.

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