While taking part in a Question Time special, in lieu of an actual debate between himself and Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn was harangued on the subject of nuclear weapons by nine middle-to- late aged conservative supporters, and one younger gentleman seemingly intent on the destruction of the planet in nuclear fire.
The issue of Trident, the UK’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent (we’ll address those air-quotes later) has been fairly non-existent in the discourse around the run up to the election thus far. The Labour manifesto clearly outlines a commitment to renewing the defence system, following on from the recent parliamentary vote supporting the move.
A great deal was made on the night, and in the media the following day, of Corbyn’s open reluctance to fire nuclear warheads. So why has this issue come up now? Why is it important? And why is everyone so surprised a potential leader is reluctant to commit nuclear genocide?
What is Trident?
Trident is the UK’s always-at-sea nuclear deterrent system, made up of four vanguard submarines, at least one of which is on active duty at any one time. Each submarine carries up to 8 Trident missiles – each of which can be fitted with up to 40 warheads. Trident was announced in 1980, long before the collapse of the USSR, and replaced the previous ‘Polaris’ submarine programme through a phased transition by 1996.
The underlying theory behind Trident is that of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ – which boils down to the concept of stockpiling nuclear weapons so that opposing nations would be MAD (get it?) to use their weapons on each other, as it would ensure the destruction of both.
After 20 years, Trident is coming to the end of its operational life, but plans for renewal have become controversial and heavily politicised.
How much will it cost to replace?
One of the most discussed issues with Trident’s renewal is the potential cost. A range of figures have been quoted, with government figures typically much lower than independent estimates.
Initial estimates by the independent Trident Commission put the lifetime (2028-2060) cost of the replacement system at £100 billion. In 2015, Reuters estimated this had risen to £167 billion. In 2016, the Campaign for Nuclear disarmament put the latest figure at £205 billion.
The headline figures relate to around £40 billion to replace the submarines, £2 billion a year operational costs (5-6% of estimated annual defence budget), and other costs including extending the life of the missiles and development.
The Nuclear threat
The Nuclear nations (Darkest – lightest, most – least weapons)
With all that fire power, how close are we to the next Cuban missile crisis? Out of the 195 countries in the world (UN recognised, including observer states), how many do you think have nuclear weapons? The more astute of you will have skipped your eyes forward to this sentence in the expectation that the question was rhetorical – gold star. There are currently only NINE countries believed to have functioning nuclear weapons programmes, only five of which are considered legal. That’s less than 5% of the world’s governments with a red button at their fingertips.
The current estimate is that there are 14,900 weapons, down from a high of 70,300 in 1986.
Of the nine nuclear nations, only the USA, Russia, UK and France have warheads deployed (i.e. placed on missiles or on bases with operational forces.) The rest are stockpiled, either in reserve, or earmarked for dismantlement.
Of the three other nations with deployed warheads, two are long-time allies, France and USA, with Russia the only potentially non-friendly state.
The Impact of nuclear missiles
Hiroshima Peace Memorial
The sole combat use of nuclear weapons was by the USA against Japan during World War Two. Two nuclear bombs were dropped, one on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945, and another on Nagasaki three days later. In Hiroshima, the 15 kiloton bomb, code named ‘Little Boy’, killed an estimated 140,000 people. The Nagasaki bomb, the 21 kiloton ‘Fat Man’, killed a further 70,000.
The development of nuclear weapons since then has seen a staggering rise in the potential power of the bombs at our disposal. The USA has since tested a 15,000 kiloton bomb, although this is eclipsed by the largest nuclear weapon ever tested, a 1961 50,000 kiloton bomb with an impact radius of 31 miles, tested by the Soviet Union. That is over 3000 times more powerful than the US bomb that led J. Robert Oppenheimer to declare himself ‘Destroyer of worlds’.
The warheads mounted on the Trident missiles include a maximum power range of 80-100 kilotons (6 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb) although some warheads are lower.
Is Trident really independent?
Trident’s ‘independent’ status is the cause of much debate (note: return of the air-quotes). Whether you consider Trident to be independent all depends on your understanding and expectation of what a truly independent nuclear deterrent should be.
The Vanguard submarines are certainly manufactured in the UK, by defence manufacturer BAE Systems. The warheads used are also British made, produced in Aldermaston by Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE).
However, the actual Trident D5 missiles are designed, produced and maintained in the USA, by Lockheed Martin. All missiles loaded onto the British submarines are drawn from a shared pool at the naval base in King’s Bay, Georgia, where our submarines also receive maintenance.
As well as American involvement in the Trident missiles, the UK is also reliant on the USA ranging from the design to procurement of; the Mark 6 missile guidance system (developed by Draper Laboratories), the neutron generators, firing system, gas reservoir, missile shells, weather information, GPS and navigation systems. Our vanguard submarines are also based off of US designs, and the UK is also reliant on use of the USA test site in Cape Canaveral.
Proponents of Trident argue that despite US involvement in the development, maintenance and equipping of British submarines, the UK is nonetheless ‘operationally independent’, and able to launch a nuclear strike without permission from or reliance on any other nation.
However, the UK Government’s own December 2006 whitepaper, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, clearly outlines a dependency on the continuation of partnership with the USA:
“We continue to believe that the costs of developing a nuclear deterrent relying solely on UK sources outweigh the benefits. We do not see a good case for making what would be a substantial additional investment in our nuclear deterrent purely to insure against a, highly unlikely, deep and enduring breakdown in relations with the US. We therefore believe that it makes sense to continue to procure elements of the system from the US.”
Further scathing evidence of UK reliance on the US comes from the written evidence of the Defence Select committee earlier that year, which states:
“The fact that, in theory, the British Prime Minister could give the order to fire Trident missiles without getting prior approval from the White House has allowed the UK to maintain the façade of being a global military power. In practice, though, it is difficult to conceive of any situation in which a Prime Minister would fire Trident without prior US approval….The fact that the UK is completely technically dependent on the USA for the maintenance of the Trident system means that one way the USA could show its displeasure would be to cut off the technical support needed for the UK to continue to send Trident to sea….In practice, the only way that Britain is ever likely to use Trident is to give legitimacy to a US nuclear attack by participating in it”
In terms of reliance on the systems themselves, the committee also concluded:
“The UK Trident system is highly dependent, and for some purposes completely dependent, on the larger US system….for example, the UK’s reliance on US weather data and on navigational data provided by the US Global Positioning System (GPS) means that, should the USA decide not to supply this data, the capacity of the UK’s Trident missiles to hit targets would be degraded”
Given the recent extraordinary events in America, it is fair to say that the ‘Special Relationship’ is currently in a state of flux, something previously thought unimaginable under successive governments. It will be interesting to see the UK government’s developing position on a number of President Trump’s policies. Theresa May has already been condemned for not pushing Trump on a number of his more controversial policies. With such a close relationship on the Trident system, could the UK afford to jeopardise its partnership with the US at the expense of the functioning operation of its nuclear weapons?
Outside of the UK’s nuclear relationship with the USA, there is also the question of how realistic it would be for the UK to launch a nuclear attack without the prior approval of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the military alliance of 29 countries of which the UK, France and the USA are the sole possessors of nuclear weapons.
NATO’s ‘Article 5’ enshrines the principle of ‘collective defence’ into the agreement between the nations, which means that ‘an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies”.
In principle, this means that if another NATO state were to be attacked, the UK would be obliged to support any military response. If the initial attack was with nuclear weapons, it is likely that the UK would be expected to respond in kind, removing yet another sense of the independence of the system.
On the other hand, for all the proclamations of ‘operational independence’, if the UK decided to launch its nuclear missiles independently, how likely would they be to do this without prior NATO approval? Ted Seay, who was part of the US Mission to NATO for three years, thinks it unlikely:
“It would also be unthinkable for the UK to launch a strike outside of NATO. There is an incredible pressure on every member to conform. I know that as an insider. If you’re thinking about launching nuclear weapons at Russia or perhaps Iran, it has to be fought out around the NATO table. To say that you could launch a unilateral attack over the heads of NATO and Washington might be theoretically true, but practically speaking it’s rubbish.”
The threats to our security
According to security agencies, including MI5 and MI6, the potential proliferation of WMD’s only comes in third in the list of potential security threats to the UK. Terrorism is the current number one threat to national security, which is more evident than ever following the recent atrocities committed in Manchester and London.
Does the possession of a nuclear deterrent system do anything to prevent the two biggest threats to our security? Could we drop a nuke on Raqqa and end ISIS once and for all? Following the NHS cyber-attack, reports stated that the trident system uses the same outdated Windows XP systems that allowed criminals access – currently, Trident is a bigger cyber security risk than anything else.
The MI5 report neglects to mention the biggest global security risk – climate change. Recent World Economic Forum reports have placed climate change as the number one risk to the global economy.
In his memoirs, former Prime Minister Tony Blair stated of Trident “the expense is huge and the utility … non-existent in terms of military use”. Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under George W Bush, also concluded “The one thing that I convinced myself after all these years of exposure to the use of nuclear weapons is that they were useless. They could not be used.”
With the estimates of a trident replacement cost ranging from £100-200 billion, could this money be better spent investing in ways to help prevent threats like terrorism, for example reversing the 20,000 police officer cuts since 2010? Or investing in renewable energy to ensure we still have a planet left to protect?
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
Complicating all of this further, is the existence of the NPT. Created in 1970, and signed up 191 countries, including the 5 legally recognised nuclear nations (USA, UK, France, China, and Russia), the treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear weapons is intended to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. While the framework may have ended weapons programmes in South Africa, South America and Iran, signatory countries including the UK still possess nuclear weapons, 47 years after its introduction. The emphasis of the treaty is on multilateral disarmament. If the UK is gearing up for a £100 billion plus investment in a trident renewal programme to take us up to 2060, what message are we sending to the world?
The Right Wing Media’s Corbyn Problem
To come full circle back to Jeremy Corbyn’s Question Time appearance, the Labour party leader made his position very clear – he would not authorise ‘First Use’ action, unlike his opponent Theresa May, who stated earlier in the year she would not hesitate to use the weapon.
It is no secret that Corbyn has dedicated his life to encouraging the UK and other countries to work towards multilateral disarmament, in line with the underlying principle of the NPT. He, like many others (only one of whom seemed to be present in the Question Time audience) wants to see a world free of nuclear weapons.
The problem is that the right wing press (and some of our more ‘impartial’ media) are trying to have their Trident cake and eat it too. On the one hand, they have tried to smear Corbyn as a militant communist extremist; a Britain hating, IRA supporting, terrorist colluding, wanton murder fan and best man at Bin Laden’s wedding. On the other hand, they want voters to believe that he is weak, fragile pacifist who won’t push an imaginary button and murder hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
Push the Button
For such a multifaceted issue, Trident seems conspicuously absent from the public consciousness. The debate for renewal was hastily rammed through parliament, shortly followed by accusations of the Prime Minister ‘covering up’ a testing error that led to a UK missile being fired towards Florida. When pressed on the Andrew Marr show if she knew about the test failure before the vote, she refused to answer.
The debate on the necessity of Trident hinges on a number of issues; are the potential costs, whichever estimate turns out to be most accurate, justifiable? Could the funds be better spent elsewhere, for example the NHS, the police, or conventional military resources? Is the threat from the nine remaining nuclear nations large enough? Is the system truly independent, and if not, is it fit for purpose if the UK does not have full operational control? Should the UK be leading the world in meeting the obligations of the Non-proliferation treaty?
Unfortunately, all of these nuanced questions are seemingly superseded in the consciousness of the British public by the only question that matters to them – Why won’t you push the button?