Trident: The debate
- Lectures and events
- Publication Date
- The Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG HonFRSE PC
- Professor Michael Clarke
- Lord Cullen of Whitekirk KT PC HonFREng FRSE
What should the UK do with its Trident submarines? Is there still a role for the nuclear deterrent? Can we afford it? A distinguished panel of experts debates these issues, with an impartial ‘judge’ overseeing proceedings.
Trident is the UK’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, a ballistic missile with a range of 7,500 km which can be launched from four Vanguard submarines, one of which is always on patrol, with 16 missiles aboard. It was introduced in 1994 to replace Polaris and is due for replacement in 2024.
Trident: Should we keep it?
Arguing for ‘Yes’:
The Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG HonFRSE PC, Former Secretary General, NATO
Arguing for ‘No’:
Professor Michael Clarke, Director, The Royal United Services Institute
Lord Cullen of Whitekirk KT PC HonFREng FRSE
Trident is the UK’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, a ballistic missile with a range of 7,500 km which can be launched from four Vanguard submarines, one of which is always on patrol, with 16 missiles aboard. It was introduced in 1994 to replace Polaris and is due for replacement in 2024. The decision on its future will be made in 2016.
Before the debate began, the audience voted on the question “Trident: Should we keep it?” as follows:
Not sure/abstain: 6
The argument for ‘Yes’
Lord Robertson began by revealing that in 1961 he demonstrated against Polaris, proudly carrying a banner which said “Ban the Bomb.” This had not only embarrassed his father, a policeman, but later shocked US President George W Bush when Robertson became the Secretary General of NATO.
Supporters of unilateral nuclear disarmament believe that it will lead to a “benign chain reaction of disarmament,” but the reality is that a gradual reduction in recent years did nothing to stop other countries getting nuclear weapons or planning to get them – e.g., North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya. Meanwhile, China has increased its stockpile and Russia has upgraded its nuclear arsenal. There are also ‘local’ factors affecting the nuclear arms race – e.g. India vs Pakistan and Israel vs Iran & Iraq. Whatever we do, therefore, Robertson said, the rationalisation for maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent still remains, and to believe otherwise would be a mistake. Proliferation is worrying, but it is unrelated to deterrence.
There is no cheap, safe and effective alternative to Trident, he continued, because it is invulnerable and undetectable. If we cancel Trident, we will be “out of the business” altogether and it would take 20 years to re-arm. We must keep Trident or give up forever our independent deterrent.
Nuclear deterrence has succeeded for 65 years in preventing the wars that disfigured the world in the first half of the 20th Century and who would dare predict what will happen over the next 30 years? Who predicted the Arab Spring or the fall of the Berlin Wall? Who can predict our future enemies or threats to our security? Would it be right to abandon our own independent deterrent and leave it to the US and France? If we gave up and others copied us, and if there was inspection and enforcement, what would happen then – in view of the fact that you can’t “disinvent” nuclear weapons? Would the world be more stable? Was the world more peaceful before nuclear deterrence? “Hardly,” Robertson said, suggesting that even if the UK did act alone, other countries would not believe us, anyway, and “this would not generate trust but more tension and suspicion.”
Trident is a political statement, he concluded, designed to stop aggressors from even thinking they could win a conventional war. It simply would not be worth taking the risk. We live in an unpredictable and complex world and the balance of power is shifting to the emerging economies, as well as to increasingly fragile and failed states. So now is not the right time to give up deterrence.
First witness: Lord Moonie, former UK Defence Minister.
What are the alternatives to Trident? Is there a cheap and cheerful option? Can we afford it at a time of economic hardship? What about training?
There are six choices, based on air, land and sea systems. Both air- and land-based missiles are potentially vulnerable and are therefore not strategic. Fixed land-based systems may provoke a first strike, to avoid being destroyed before defending themselves, and mobile systems in the UK are impractical. Sea-based systems based on Astute Class subs provide a continuous threat and are invulnerable, but despite their attractions, Cruise missiles have limitations in terms of range (only 1,000 miles), payload, speed (subsonic) and cost – they would require a redesign to deliver a nuclear warhead. They would also require a redesigned warhead, which could have a small enough yield to constitute a tactical weapon. The UK has already rejected the use of tactical nuclear weapons and it would be irresponsible to reintroduce them because they would not be deterrent enough. Reducing our Vanguards to three submarines is also an inferior option because we would lose our continuous threat.
All public spending is about making choices, but Trident is “affordable” in terms of platform, infrastructure, missiles and submarines – and meets our needs. Recent estimates suggest that the submarines will cost £11–14 billion spread over several years, or about five per cent of the total defence budget over the next 40 years. Re-training for alternative systems would also be costly because we have considerable expertise in the current single-use platform. “The world is a dangerous and uncertain place – and getting more so.”
Second witness: Dr Paul Cornish, Head of the International Security Programme and Carrington Professor of International Security at Chatham House
How have nuclear arsenals changed through the years? What are your views on the “Global Zero” campaign (supported by George Schultz and Henry Kissinger)?
The only rational choice is to maintain a continuous sea-based deterrent. At the height of the Cold War there were about 65,000 warheads, including 300 in the UK. Today, the figure is about 20,000 warheads, with the UK total down to 225. Despite overall reduction, several countries have entered the nuclear arms race since the original five, and several terrorist organisations have also expressed interest in acquisition. There is no simple causal relationship between reduction and deterrence or between reduction and proliferation. It is a “conceit” that we can turn the nuclear arms race on and off like a tap, through unilateral disarmament. The evidence is that other countries decide what to do for their own reasons.
“Global Zero” (which seeks to eliminate all nuclear weapons) is the Holy Grail we all seek but it is not feasible or safe, said Cornish, and “not merely irrelevant but possibly tragic,” particularly in view of threats from international terrorists – creating more danger, not less.
Cornish also discussed the moral issues raised by deterrence, the need to set an example and the question of proportionality, saying that the issues are not “monochrome” but highly complex – e.g. when you threaten to use nuclear weapons, you must be willing to use them, yet that is the last thing you want. Given the availability of nuclear materials and technology, and the regional issues involved, people should support disarmament if they think that would reverse the trend, but if they want to deal with the world as it is, vote to keep Trident. The proof must be high before we can afford to do away with it in such an unpredictable world, so we must maintain deterrence, Cornish concluded, “to prevent ourselves being surprised.”
Michael Clarke then asked about deterrence.
What makes it successful?
Cornish replied that it is “uncertainty as to the outcome,” and the broadly shared view in the Soviet Union that it would suffer unacceptable damage in the event of an all-out exchange. “They understand nuclear deterrence and the penalty.”
What about the risk of accidents?
Yes, there have been incidents, but fewer of them as time has gone by, and both sides handle nuclear weapons with considerable care because they know the risks involved.
What about the numbers – how do you define them as high or low, in view of the fact that so many tactical weapons have gone?
Everyone wants to see a reduction, Cornish replied, but proliferation is a bigger threat.
What difference would it make if we gave up our independent deterrent for 10–20 years?
We need a continuous deterrent because that means there is no question of being attacked.
If we separate the threat of using weapons from the act, why should someone believe us?
It is a paradox that in the process of making the threat, you must be willing to act. Lord Robertson then added that a nuclear response does not need to lead to Armageddon, but would mean a threat of huge damage.
The argument for ‘No’
Michael Clarke began by saying that the abolitionists used to be described as the sentimentalists versus the realists, but perhaps this should now be reversed, in view of recent geopolitical changes. The fundamentals are that some people believe that deterrence is what kept the peace in the Cold War and will continue to do so in future. But the Cold War was not as safe as we thought it was – there were numerous scares. And the concept of deterrence is based on unique historical circumstances, with the US and the Soviet Union in control of their allies, with a common morality and attitude towards proportionality. Clarke conceded that deterrence may have worked in the past but then said it could not be justified now. There are nine recognised nuclear powers, plus Iran, and many do not share the same beliefs – e.g., China’s view is based on certainty and the belief that deterrence must be backed up by action. “Deterrence is whatever you say it is,” Clarke said.
Instinct plays a big role in our attitude to nuclear weapons, Clarke continued – including the instinct that it is good for prestige, good for jobs and technology. “All these arguments are partly true,” he said, “but they are not strategic.” Is it worth having nuclear weapons so they can be used by politicians when they make mistakes?
The concept of stable deterrence is astrology – a chimera. “The genie is out of the bottle,” he added. Soon, there may be up to 40 governments with nuclear weapons. But we have the opportunity to do something now. In 2015, there will be a new president in Russia and Barack Obama will be thinking of his presidential legacy. Iran will be at a threshold. And in 2016, the UK has the chance to act. We have no palpable enemies now, and if we disarm, then others may also disarm. If it is a question of uncertainty, look no further than the environment – surely that is where we should be investing our money. If the UK scrapped Trident, that would send out a message and be the most significant move to date in the nuclear age. Would we be safer as one out of 40 nuclear powers or as part of the non-nuclear world? We should get out of this “fraudulent deterrence game.”
First witness: Nick Ritchie, Research Fellow at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford
What use has Trident been to the UK over the last 20–30 years?
“If Trident is the answer,” Ritchie replied, “then what is the question?” The ‘mantra’ is national security, but we have clearly stated that we would only ever consider using nuclear weapons in an extremely remote set of circumstances. We would not use them against non-nuclear powers and we are bound by international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflict, including the Geneva Conventions. Using or threatening to use nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to international humanitarian law, except possibly in extreme circumstance of self-defence when our national survival is at stake. Given this very narrow set of remote possibilities for nuclear use, Ritchie asked whether it is truly essential for our ‘national security’ that we retain them. We must also accept that there is no such thing as a risk-free nuclear future. Some people say we must retain our nuclear weapons just in case, as an insurance against future uncertainty, but Trident does not provide us any guarantee of protection. Nuclear deterrence provides no certainties, but a potential ability to counter an attack in highly improbable circumstances. It is no insurance against broader threats – e.g., it was irrelevant in the Falklands War.
As regards costs, the Ministry of Defence can’t afford it now that it is clear the costs will come out of the Defence Budget, inevitably at the expense of other conventional capabilities. Therefore, the circumstances in which we may need Trident are now so remote and the opportunity costs are so great, that just because we can imagine the scenarios in which it may be useful, this should not drive our policy. Is it absolutely necessary to maintain Trident at the cost envisaged for limited potential security benefits or for vague notions of international prestige? “No,” answered Ritchie. Trident is an “optional extra” which comes at a significant moral, financial and political cost. “It is a security blanket we can’t afford”.
Second witness: Rt Rev Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh
How do you see Trident in relation to morality?
The ethics of deterrence are based on so-called “just war” theory – war should be a last resort, the reasons for war must be just and the war must be justly waged. War has a “demonic energy” all of its own, said Holloway. This is not a reason not to enter war, but if the war is legal and we have a chance of success, then it may be justifiable. So how do we apply this to nuclear weapons? The theory is altered at once because there is maximum damage at the start of the conflict. This is why MAD (mutually assured destruction) lies at the heart of the doctrine of deterrence. Holloway’s “intestinal reaction,” however, is to question if the ethics of just war theory can apply to nuclear weapons and, in the context of the current debate, to Trident and the UK in particular. Using nuclear weapons could never meet the criteria of just war theory, and MAD means there would only be losers, no winners, so therefore no chance of success.
There are lots of arguments about deterrence and how this may reduce the risk of proliferation, but the more we believe in deterrence, the more likely this will break down. The “monstrous” threat to use nuclear weapons is itself immoral, Holloway continued. “I don’t want to be part of a nation that threatens destruction as part of a metaphysical doctrine of deterrence,” he said.
Holloway then pointed out that there were profound non-military reasons for the UK’s adoption of nuclear weapons in 1946, primarily our national prestige, despite the economic hardships of the time. This desire to play a leading part in the world is described as the “great power impulse,” and Holloway quoted Churchill saying that the UK’s investment in nuclear weapons was “the price we pay to sit at the top table.” In recent times, Tony Blair also acknowledged that despite all the arguments against Trident, to cancel it would “downgrade our status.” With some politicians, said Holloway, prestige often overrides reason. Would it make the UK more like Belgium if we said “no” to Trident? “Not a fate worse than death,” Holloway answered. Whether or not Trident is immoral, he concluded, there is still a special case for the UK to get rid of it. “Frankly, I am glad the days are over when we need this prestige,” he said. “We would be better off financially and morally without it.”
Lord Robertson then asked if it would be wise to disarm even if no-one else followed our example. Holloway replied that we should do it because it is right – it is so monstrous that there is no valid utilitarian argument for it, while even the threat of using nuclear weapons is immoral. “Nuclear deterrence is inherently immoral,” he added. “It is wrong and it doesn’t work. Getting rid of Trident would be doing good, not sacrificing prudence”.
When Lord Robertson asked Michael Clarke if he is in favour of the US or Russia disarming, Clarke replied that he supports the idea of a “superpower right” to hold onto some nuclear weapons, adding that he also thinks the US would be no more vulnerable without them. “Deterrence does not dictate policy,” he added. “Without nuclear arms, there are many other ways of resolving disputes. Nuclear weapons would not stop China acting against India, for example.” Asked where he would draw the line, Holloway said that he isn’t a pacifist, but noted that we’ve had non-stop wars since deterrence began. A conventional war may make things slightly better, but not a nuclear war. “I don’t believe in the logic of deterrence,” said Holloway. If deterrence is such a good idea, every country in the world would want to have nuclear weapons – including Iran. Cornish pointed out that Iran is not motivated by self-defence but by its desire for the annihilation of Israel. Holloway countered that it is hard to “unpick the mosaic” of complex international relations, and Clarke said that multiple deterrence in the Middle East does not make the region safer.
Are threat and act the same? Is a threat so unbearably evil?
Deterrence doesn’t work, said Holloway, adding: “There is something immoral about monstrous intentions, even if you don’t mean to carry them out.”
We face many, various threats. In the last century, 160 million people died in war around the world and this is starting to reduce now, thanks to deterrence. The economist J K Galbraith talked about the difference between “those who know they don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know”, and this also applies to deterrence. Russia won’t give up its nuclear weapons. “A nuclear-free world won’t happen overnight.” But because we can’t forecast the future, we must plan ahead.
There is no alternative to Trident. MAD is no longer a threat because we’re capable of “flexible response”, and modern weapons are more accurate. They can still cause huge damage, however, and having a continuous sea-based deterrence works. Unilateral disarmament would not work because we would not be believed. War between the great powers is no longer the norm, because of deterrence, including Trident in the UK, and this is especially true in a changing, unpredictable world. Deterrence is not a chimera or psychological and if we disarmed, it would be hard to reverse the decision.
Trident is efficient, but the argument goes much deeper. We have a misplaced faith in nuclear deterrence, based on historical circumstances that no longer apply. In the past, we had a “metaphysical deterrence”, but this won’t help us in the future. Why should the UK need nuclear weapons and not other countries? A continuation of the present is not risk-free. “If the UK were not already a nuclear power, we would not become one.” And the timing is good to scrap Trident. The UK has never been as safe as it is now. We have a “window of opportunity.” We do have an alternative. Say “no” to Trident.
Team A (Yes) said that Trident is a political statement, threatening unacceptable damage. Nuclear stockpiles are increasing. The future is uncertain. Reduction has not discouraged proliferation. Global Zero is a dangerous approach. The threat to use nuclear weapons prevents war.
Team B (No) said that history has moved on from the Cold War. Deterrence is a “slippery term.” We should take the moral lead. Threat and use of force are equally immoral. There is a very narrow frame of reference for using nuclear weapons. There is no guarantee they would protect or deter. Their use can not be justified by “just war” theory and to threaten to use them is just as monstrous and immoral as any threat against us. What is so special about the UK? Trident would also compromise the MoD budget.
Vote: After the debate, the audience voted again on the question: “Trident: Should we keep it?” as follows:
Not sure/abstain: 2