Simon Jenkins / The Guardian – 2013-10-01 02:13:49
LONDON (September 24, 2013) — It must rank as the daftest, costliest question in British politics. How many Trident submarines does Britain need? Medieval schoolmen sharpened their brains by counting angels on pinheads. British policymakers sharpen theirs by counting warheads on missiles.
They know it is irrational but the money, the language, the whiz-bangs, the uniforms turn their heads and dazzle their minds. Ordinary guns and soldiers they can understand. They slash their costs with ease. But cut nuclear weapons? That would be risky.
Every time I dip into the Trident debate I am reminded of Great War generals gulping on chateau champagne while the trenches filled with blood. David Cameron was confronted with a bold option on taking office: whether to cut back on Labour’s glamour sea and air projects, many already out of date, and invest in the army instead. He flunked it. In the case of Trident, he muttered that his “real concern” was a threat from North Korea. It was mad.
Last spring there were signs that Labour’s Ed Miliband might summon up the guts at last to challenge the “independent deterrent”, given that its submarine replacement would consume a third of defence procurement for a decade. The press was briefed that he was “set to scrap Trident strategy”. He too flunked it. There was no mention of the most expensive project on the Treasury books in his speech yesterday.
Earlier this month the Liberal Democrats mooted a scheme to keep submarines, but with their warheads locked up ashore. The idea had emerged to cut costs from within the Ministry of Defence, where a former minister, Nick Harvey, spoke of the “frankly almost lunatic mindset” among nuclear strategists.
The idea was crushed by the union of former defence secretaries and service chiefs, led by Lords (George) Robertson and (Michael) Boyce. They dismissed it as “hare-brained.”
The entire debate is hare-brained. Nobody can explain when, where or how these terrible weapons would be deployed and used, despite the essence of deterrence being credibility. (Yet we want to bomb Syria for using far less drastic chemical ones.)
They bear no reference to any plausible threat to Britain that could possibly merit their use. Meanwhile their possession by Britain is a blatant invitation to nuclear proliferation, making opposition to an Iranian bomb hypocritical.
Yet Labour, like the Tories, is supporting a Trident renewal programme that is set to consume Â£20 billion and rise to a reputed Â£100 billion over 20 years. Even current defence chiefs have been careful to excuse themselves from this debate, saying it is “for politicians to decide” on the deterrent, and for the Treasury to pay for it outside the defence budget (which the Treasury refuses).
The mesmerising effect of “the bomb” on Labour recalls the party’s ancient fear of being thought weak on defence. It was seen in Nye Bevan’s shift from “no first use” to deriding disarmament as an “emotional spasm” that would send Britain “naked into the conference chamber.”
Labour’s defence establishment ever since has striven to be more hawkish than any. In 1997 Tony Blair duly bought fighters, frigates and carriers in the greatest splurge of uncontrolled defence spending in peacetime.
Seven years ago Chatham House published a debate on the deterrent by a distinguished group of British and US strategists, soldiers and historians. They calmly took apart the bombast and rhetoric, delivering a message of extreme scepticism.
It was highly unlikely that the Soviets were deterred from attacking Britain during the cold war. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was certainly not deterred from seizing Suez, or General Galtieri from seizing the Falklands.
Even Margaret Thatcher’s favourite nuclear strategist, the late Michael Quinlan, pondered the then forecast Â£10 billion renewal cost for Trident. He questioned “the continuing effort and expenditure” and doubted whether a British deterrent “would still have worthwhile credibility”. The former head of US strategic air command was equally baffled.
The British deterrent relied on US supplies and maintenance. Yet its use was predicated on America proving unreliable in deploying its deterrent against some putative attacker. The British deterrent had to be credible when America’s was not. It made no sense.
Reading the Chatham House study today is to realise how deaf politics can be to reason. Gordon Brown justified Trident as merely supplying “Scottish jobs”. Blair wanted to be “at the top table”, as does Cameron. Yet the New York Times reported in April that the US was pressing Britain to face financial reality, and “either be a nuclear power and nothing else, or a real military partner.”
If Britons wanted to police the world, they should sustain a well-equipped army, not posture as a nuclear power.
Debates on defence are a miasma of fear, ignorance and fantasy. The cry of the defence lobby, that “you can’t put a price on security” is rubbish. There is a price on every sort of security. What makes Trident peculiar is the tendency of the costs involved to rise, and the obscurity of its justification.
The old maxim was never more true — that soldiers prepare for old wars not future ones. They are obsessively conservative. As a result, when not spending on Trident (a cold war weapon), they have induced the government to spend on old-fashioned carriers and manned fighter planes, just when long-distance drones are the weapon of the future.
Yet the wars Britain is expected to fight, wars of political choice, demand equipment and tactics from not just past wars but past centuries. Enemies are immune to nuclear weapons and heavy armour, enemies who hurl grenades and wield Kalashnikovs made in 1947. In today’s wars, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cameron’s expensive procurements are an irrelevance.
Nuclear deterrence is rooted in a balance of terror established briefly during the cold war. In the improbable event of those days returning, the west would stand together under America’s nuclear umbrella or it would be doomed. The idea that Britain is made one jot safer by a Â£100bn Armageddon weapon floating in the Atlantic is absurd.
Yet not absurd to everyone. The idea is the mental construct of a powerful lobby, the British navy, its cheerleaders and its suppliers, with their hands on stupefying amounts of public money and an ability to scare politicians into pandering to their interest.
It is that interest, not Great Britain, that they are defending so vigorously. As a result the one policy on which all parties seem to agree is that Britain needs its own nuclear deterrent, which is nonsense.
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