The Truth About Trident

imagesI read today that George Robertson has been trying to sell us on the renewal of Trident again.

As usual, the media appears to be giving him a free ride, when they should be asking hard questions. They can only get away with this because so few people take a genuine interest in defence matters, and especially matters involving nuclear weapons.

I am a geek on this subject. It’s ground on which I feel completely safe, because I’ve been reading about it for more than 20 years.

I wasn’t even a teenager when I read my first book on Hiroshima. I was nine when I stayed up all night to watch the BBC’s stunning series of documentaries and films After The Bomb: The First 40 Years.

Foremost amongst them was a nightmarish film called Threads, which I now own on DVD and like to torture myself with every so often.

It is a BAFTA award winning docu-drama, made in Britain and written by the novelist and screenwriter Barry Hines. It stars the excellent Reece Dinsdale, and was set in Sheffield. It tells the story of a nuclear attack on that city.

It is astonishing, brutal, cold and uncompromising … terrifying and bleak in a soul crushing way.

I watched it, and a few years later I read the book version, and it was worse; Duncan Campbell’s staggering War Plan UK, which laid bare the government’s vision of Britain after the bomb, a vision I’ve never been able to shake and which spelled out, in gruesome detail, what the priorities would be for those who held the reins after such a dreadful event.

In that half-lit world of nuclear winter, where you had to perform back breaking work for the meagre hand-outs controlled by the central state, like serfs from the dark ages, the living would truly envy the dead.

If you have shied away from these things, I don’t blame you, but every person should see Threads at least once. There’s a US version too, called The Day After, which was made first and which – although it does not come close to the horrendous details of its British counterpart – left such a profound effect on Ronald Reagan (yes, I am not joking) that he dedicated his next meeting with Gorbachev to trying to end the cold war.

Both movies are available to buy, but they’re also available online (on YouTube and Vimeo), along with Peter Watkins earlier drama The War Game, which the BBC commissioned and then promptly banned.

It’s not as grim as the others, but it’s terrifying in its own way.

Seriously, if you have a strong enough stomach, seek them out. Watch them. But remember … they will live with you forever afterwards, like no horror films you’ve ever seen.

The emotion they generate is enormous, for obvious reasons.

What makes Robertson’s statements today so completely unacceptable is that they are about nothing except emotion. He issues not one fact, not one actual piece of evidence which supports the retention of these diabolical weapons and it seems he wasn’t asked to.

Instead he talks about “forces of darkness” and how Britain dumping nuclear weapons would be “catastrophic for the world.” He appeals to the rawest emotion of all when he asks that we don’t abandon “others yet unborn to terrible risks.”

I am beyond furious at this glib, shameful appeal to irrational fears. I think it says a lot for those who advocate renewal that this is the best argument they’ve got; the world is uncertain, we don’t know what the future holds.

I want to take passion out of this. I want to deal in tactical and strategic military reality, without any recourse to emotion, as Robertson and those who want to retain Trident should when they are presenting their case to the public.

There is a good reason why they don’t do this.

Because their case has more holes in it than Swiss Cheese.

It is based on nothing less than a tissue of lies.

Let’s start with what Trident is, because you have to understand that before you can actually examine their case for its retention.

Trident was created as a first strike weapon, not as a deterrent. Don’t let anyone kid you about that. What characterises Trident as such is its remarkable accuracy. To grasp the significance of this we need to look at the composition of nuclear forces on both sides of what was then the Iron Curtain.

NATO explicitly had a “first strike” nuclear policy; in other words, they built nuclear weapons and their use into their general war plans.

They would have used tactical nuclear warheads – battlefield weapons – against Soviet forces in the event of an invasion of Europe.

The Soviets refused to make any preparations for this, the fighting of what the Americans termed “limited nuclear war”, and their declared policy was to use strategic weapons in a mass attack on the US and its allies in the event the nuclear threshold was crossed.

Soviet doctrine revolved around using nuclear weapons in a retaliatory role, for what is called the “counterforce strike”, which is a full-scale nuclear attack on the enemy’s “war fighting capability” – with the emphasis on nuclear sites, like missile silos, airbases, naval facilities housing warheads and servicing vessels. For this, the Soviets planned to use land based long and medium range missiles, and so their technicians and designers made those weapons the most accurate in their arsenals.

The West took the opposite view. They put their most accurate missiles in submarines, and their own counterforce strategy was based on the concept of the first strike, because they wanted to hit the Soviet silos and mobile launchers before they could be used.

In a European war, NATO would have used battlefield weapons against Soviet armies to halt their advance. Knowing what Soviet nuclear policy was, and assuming they believed that policy would be carried out – and it certainly would have been – they would, in addition to their battlefield “tactical” strikes, have positioned themselves to carry out a counterforce strike too.

Soviet ICBM’s cannot be used for a first strike. They know that the moment those missiles are launched, the American DSP satellites will detect that strike and a retaliation will follow. They also know where that attack would likely be targeted.

Soviet missile silos would be empty. What would be the purpose of targeting them?

There would be none. Besides, US ICBM’s are not accurate enough. As a consequence, a US ICBM strike would probably be targeted on the Soviet people.

The Soviet response to this has been made equally clear; their retaliatory strike, from their own submarines, who’s missiles are not as accurate, and from their bombers, would be targeted on NATO’s population centres, where accuracy is not such a major issue.

So NATO strategy is perfectly clear, and what was then Soviet strategy is equally straightforward.

Trident was not designed to deter a nuclear attack. It was designed to launch one.

When those promoting the retention of Trident talk about it as a deterrent against aggression, they fail to point out that in the event we’re threatened by a major power – like Russia – that the very design of the weapon system makes it more and not less likely that nuclear weapons will be used when the crisis escalates to a certain stage.

The nature of Trident, as a first strike weapon, actually threatens deterrence because it makes nuclear war look “winnable.” Weapon systems like Cruise missiles, which fly beneath radar, and stealth bombers, which can evade detection, operating alongside submarines so well positioned to launch missiles against the enemy that they would reduce warning time to mere minutes, makes a first strike look like a viable military strategy.

So that’s first.

Trident makes the use of nuclear weapons more likely and not less, because deterrence only works if everyone sees the use of these weapons as futile.

Let’s move on from that, and look at the idea of the weapons as our “independent deterrent.”

The military case for Britain having its own nuclear weapons is based completely on a scenario whereby our other allies deserted us in time of a crisis, and where the Americans, in particular, refused us the protection of their “nuclear umbrella.”

I don’t have to tell you – because you already know – what the likelihood of that would be.

A threat to the national security of the UK could only represent the gravest risk to the rest of Europe and the US, and therefore it would be in their own interests to support us come what may.

But there’s a deeper problem with the “independent nuclear deterrent” hypothesis and it’s this; there is absolutely nothing independent about Britain’s Trident system.

First, we construct the vessels ourselves, but they are based on the US Ohio class ballistic missile submarines, so in part it is proprietary technology. Non-nuclear components of the warheads – which the British government would have you believe are wholly made here at home – are actually constructed in the US and the Trident II D5 rockets are American made, manufactured and built by Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California.

We actually pay the US arms giant 5% towards the development and construction costs of the missiles, and then we pay a further fee whereby we lease the technology from the US government.

The missiles are supposed to come with no strings; indeed, the lease treaty makes it clear that no “permission” is required from the US government for the missiles to be used, but this hides a greater truth.

To successfully launch a Trident missile and have it hit its target depends on US made and controlled satellite systems. Furthermore, because the boats are copies of the Ohio class submarines, and the Trident II D5 is a US made missile, an enemy would have no way of differentiating between the launch of a British rocket and one from a US sub.

Furthermore, these boats operate in the same theatres of war, the same stretches of ocean, especially the mid-Atlantic, where they are protected by the G-I-UK (Greenland, Iceland, UK) SOSUS network.

Therefore, if the United States had already walked away from us – making our independent nuclear deterrent necessary in the first place – it would be a simple matter for them to render it unusable and obsolete; indeed, in those circumstances they would have to, or court the very retaliation they were ostensibly trying to avoid.

The “independent nuclear deterrent” hypothesis is, therefore, riddled with contradictions and built on a premise that is fundamentally dishonest.

From there we move on to Robertson’s claims that we cannot predict what might happen in the future, and what level of threat might emerge.

For one thing, US military hegemony is now almost global and unless we’re concerned about the Americans themselves becoming a strategic threat, we can say, quite safely, that the probability of some new world power emerging in the next 50 years is virtually unthinkable.

We would be able to see that coming miles off, and avert it with conventional means if we had to use military force at all. That leaves three potential scenarios that should concern us.

1) The sudden removal of the US as a global power.
2) A current global power – such as China or Russia – becoming aggressively expansionist and seeking to do us harm.
3) Some coalition of regional states coming together under one banner.

Let’s look at the first scenario, an event or series of events, where the US ceases to be a global power, and thus creates a vacuum in which new threats can emerge.

There are only a handful of conceivable scenarios which would cause the collapse of the United States as the world’s only hyper power and in every single one of them – which include but are not limited to a meteor strike, a super volcanic eruption, a collapse of the US power grid, a pandemic or a failure of political and/or economic systems – the effects on a global scale would be so great that our country would be exposed to enormous, unavoidable, risks come what may, and, in all probability, would plunge it into uncontrollable chaos.

The retention or not of nuclear weapon systems would make little or no difference to the calamitous effects as they spread throughout the world. Besides, as I described already, without US support systems it is almost impossible for us to use those weapons in a meaningful way, so if a threat did emerge and we were denied the protection of America it would, in fact, be more beneficial for us to have used the money to strengthen our conventional forces or to have retained our previous – and undoubtedly independent – nuclear delivery system, the WE-177 bombs.

I’m going to take the second and third cases together, because they aren’t terribly different; some current nation or group of nations adopting expansionist policies which pose a direct threat to our national security.

First, unless we were dealing with fanatics, expansionist aims usually arise from a very distinct set of national needs; land, resources, security. Land is rarely a priority on its own, and acquiring it by whatever means usually stems from some requirement for one of the other two. Yet natural resources, anything from oil to grain, are not hoarded by countries; they are sold on the open market.

There’s no need, any longer, for a major nation state to go to war for them.

It would require a calamitous breakdown in diplomacy for, say, either Russia or China to want to attack us on the basis of natural resources. We would have to virtually starve a country into collapse before they would contemplate that, and where would our incentive to do so come from? To create a vast and deadly risk to our own people? Why?

It was the old warrior himself, Henry Kissinger, who described geopolitics as “the uniting of the world in self-interest”, and that’s the basis on which all modern diplomatic theory is based.

Russia’s present policy in the Ukraine is, in no small part, motivated by their need to protect their national security. The crisis there has been caused by a combination of pride on their side and arrogance on ours. Ukraine is a vital strategic buffer between Russia and NATO, and it’s not difficult to understand their desire to keep that country within their sphere of influence.

Despite all the scare stories about that situation having the potential to escalate into a general European war, it is the last thing either side wants and so some form of diplomatic settlement will be agreed in relation to it, something that gives Russia a way out and which maintains Ukraine’s independence. It is inevitable, and everyone involved knows it.

If we assume that Putin is rational, we have to conclude that he only wants his country’s national security interests respected.

Putin, despite his reputation, is a very capable and thoughtful man, who pushes his luck only as far as it will go. He knows where the line is, but he also knows what he wants. He’s probably willing to topple the Ukraine government if that’s what it takes … and he will, because he knows we’ll not make any realistic move to stop him.

Let’s go further, and assume our own leaders are rational. They have to be.

With no national interest at stake, we’re only chancing our arm in supporting the current Ukraine administration. The merest hint that Western powers were willing to engage militarily to prop that government up would wipe billions off share prices overnight, would provoke widespread disorder in capitals and would bring down governments. The NATO alliance itself would probably collapse.

It would, quite literally, require a collective breakdown in sanity for this, or any conceivable scenario involving another major power, to degenerate into a shooting war. The world is past that point; rouge nations aside, we’re all too co-joined and interdependent.

The same applies to some coalition of different countries emerging. We’d see that coming miles away, in the same way as we’d spot an emerging power, and we could tailor our diplomatic (and even military) efforts accordingly.

None of those options will require a nuclear arsenal. None of them will call for the use of those dreadful weapons.

Robertson is right, in the sense that we don’t know the shape the world will take in decades to come, but he’s wrong to say that anything is likely to happen that will require this country to possess a nuclear weapon system with first strike capability.

For an emerging nation to acquire the means to build even a single nuclear bomb, without risking intervention from other countries, they would need to do so in complete secret. This is nearly impossible when one considers the manpower and the skillset needed, the technology they’d need to acquire or the resources, like nuclear materials, they’d have to obtain.

Our intelligence communities would know it far in advance, as they know what Iran has been up to, and our efforts could, as ever, be tailored to suit.

Which brings us to current threats, and in particular the “rogue nation” hypothesis.

Almost every think tank out there regards the most pressing immediate and emerging threats to be based on some form of terrorism or cyber-warfare. None of these requires a nuclear response, and nuclear weapons will not deter enemies in these arenas.

Cyber-warfare is a complex problem and a serious threat that requires real money to be thrown at it. Every penny we spend on wasteful weapons like Trident decreases the sums which we can invest in areas like this.

Terrorism is an even more potent, and present, problem because it does often involve fanatics who are willing to do whatever they have to, killing hundreds, even thousands, in pursuit of their goals.

If terrorist groups, especially Islamic fundamentalist organisations, were able to somehow get their hands on weapons of mass destruction they would not hesitate to use them against us, no matter how many people they killed. In fact, the more the merrier.

Nuclear weapons cannot deter terrorist organisations. There’s no specific target to destroy for a start, and even if there were, there are means other than nuclear arms which we could use to do it, and which would not result in global chaos.

I am writing a novel at the moment about a bio-terrorism incident, and my research in this area has been extensive and the things I’ve found out – some of which I won’t even put in the book – scare me badly. Something like that – the use of a biological weapon in a mass casualty attack – is virtually certain in the next ten years (even more so than the use of a nuclear “dirty bomb”), and, as with cyber-warfare, real money ought to be spent on that which won’t be if the available pool is being drained to fund nuclear weapon systems.

A rogue nation could fund such an attack (in the book, it’s an Iranian government in exile, and their regional allies who are behind it), and kill a lot of people. Alternatively, they could attempt a game of nuclear bluff if they had the means, and even launch a nuclear attack, but to what end?

Unless they had hundreds of weapons it wouldn’t bring a nation to its knees. It would only stiffen the resolve of the country and its people against whatever gain said rogue nation was aiming for, and such an attack would not just infuriate the country it was targeted against but would spark revulsion and anger around the world.

In those circumstances, we would have the moral authority to demand action from the international community. The collective response of our fellow nations would swiftly bring the government responsible down, whether militarily or otherwise … few countries would stand in the way of a United Nations force going in there and removing them after they had done something as diabolical as using weapons of mass destruction.

What we would not have the grounds to do – morally, ethically or legally – is commit our very own act of mass murder against that country and its civilian population, which the launching of even one nuclear warhead would accomplish in spades.

In those circumstances, the world would not come to our aid. Mankind would, justifiably, see us in the same way it saw the aggressors, and our revenge would not have changed a thing except for that.

A country which was willing to use those weapons against us would not be discouraged by the possibility of our own nuclear strike, because they would already have had to consider the response of the rest of the world, and would already be far beyond the line of sanity.

Robertson is certainly correct that we cannot account for that, for dealing with madmen … because in those circumstances nuclear weapons become a self-defeating tool of vengence and nothing more. Deterrence itself would be a myth.

In the 60 years since the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, none of these dreadful weapons have been used in war. Does that prove that deterrence has worked? I don’t think so.

You could argue, with equal conviction, that it’s the concept of geopolitics, and the interconnecting nature of our world, which has prevented a large scale military engagement like those which have come before. America’s global military superiority is another compelling factor, and one unlikely to change in the forseeable future.

There’s one last reason why the retention of Trident is unacceptable, and it goes right to the heart of everything I’ve written above, and destroys Robertson’s idea that losing these weapons would be “catastrophic for the world” and presents some kind of risk to our grandchildren.

In 1983, the prominent US scientist Carl Sagan and a group of his colleagues set out to examine the environmental and ecological consequences of a full-scale nuclear exchange. They postulated a scenario where 1/3rd of the world’s arsenal was used in a series of strikes in the Western hemisphere, from the west coast of the United States to the eastern reaches of the Soviet Union.

Their findings shocked the world, and forced a global re-evaluation of the arms race and of nuclear war posture.

This was felt especially keenly in the West, where the concept of the “limited nuclear war” was beginning to creep into general military planning and national policy, and in particular in the US where there was already a lot of thinking about how a nuclear exchange could be handled in such a way as to lead to a victory.

Sagan and his team – in conjunction with colleagues in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, including some notable scientists in the UK – were predicting a hitherto unforeseen consequence of such a rapidly escalating conflict; the nuclear winter, where the combined dust and smoke would choke off the sunlight which reached earth, resulting in plummeting temperatures around the globe and leading to mass extinctions and starvation, and this in addition to the already dreadful radiation effects, which would kill millions more.

They had anticipated such a result, based on their observations of global cooling following volcanic eruptions.

What they had not anticipated – and what later studies have built on and borne out in full, shocking detail – was that even the limited nuclear exchange that some military experts had spent the previous years postulating, would have a similar, and deadly effect.

It is now an accepted fact in scientific circles that even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan would result in a worldwide climate catastrophe. Furthermore, and this was even more shocking to the scientists, their studies suggest that the use of even 50 Hiroshima sized nuclear bombs would have devastating effects on the ozone layer – globally – which could threaten the very existence of the human race.

George Robertson conjured up the spectre of “forces of darkness”, and so let me now resort to my own emotional response.

The idea of retaining weapons which, even in a limited scenario, would have global effects is the real existential threat which our grandchildren will have to live with, as we have lived with it all these years.

Robertson is an especially amoral individual, about whom I know far more than I am comfortable and about whom I suspect far worse than I actually know. It sickens me that he has jumped into this debate, with his fraudulent analysis, pushing his atrocious and emotive justifications into a discussion which requires rational thinking and common sense.

It is appalling that he would do so to score political points.

These weapons are a scourge on our planet. Their removal – not just from Scotland or Britain but from the world – is not the mission of “nationalists” but a goal shared by millions across the globe and ought to be a moral imperative for every political party.

We know where all the parties in the UK stand and if we had no other basis on which to judge them, as far as I’m concerned that would be enough.

It is one of many, many reasons – but a leading one, a major one – for why I am voting SNP in May.

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2 comments on “The Truth About Trident
  1. Very good James. Just need to do a bit of subbing, e.g. ‘reigns’ instead of ‘reins’ and American’s’ instead of ‘Americans’.

  2. Excellent post. Im passionate about this issue. I had hoped to attend the ‘Big Debate’ – Nicky Campbell’s BBC programme next Sunday(I think) but cant go now.
    Maybe you can?

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