If he were Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn says he would not press the nuclear button. His reluctance to unleash a nuclear strike triggered outbursts of righteous indignation across the right-wing media; there was even some concern amongst the more centrist or liberal minded commentators.
The anger was contrived and quite meaningless. It is obvious that once a British Prime Minister has to even consider such an action, then the deterrent has already failed.
Even the button is a misleading simplification. There is no button. The order to fire requires the release of the launch codes/action letter to the commanders of the SSBNs at sea.
A question that is rarely asked is, “Who or what is actually deterred by the UK’s nuclear deterrent?” It is a question that needs to be asked in the context that the UK has 200-odd warheads and four submarines, of which a maximum of two will ever be on patrol at one time. This pales into insignificance compared to the nuclear stockpiles and multiple delivery systems possessed by the USA and Russia.
We are told that the UK nuclear arsenal is an independent deterrent that allows us to act independently. The likelihood of a military conflict with an enemy that involves no one else but us is so slim as to be fantastic. Indeed, the last time that anything like this occurred was the Falklands War, and our possession of an independent nuclear deterrent did not deter General Galtieri.
Increasingly, conflicts across the world in which the Western powers are involved are characterised by what is known as asymmetric warfare – where the technology and hardware of the West is deployed against disparate and unconventional groups, such as ISIS.
Possession of strategic nuclear weapons does not deter such groups, and a nuclear response to territorial aggression or even terrorist attacks on Western populations is not feasible.
Meanwhile, the planned renewal of the trident programme distorts and weakens the UK’s defence planning and practice. The cost of replacing the submarines alone is estimated at between £25bn and £43bn. The missiles and the launch systems await so-called ‘joint development’ with the USA. So once again our ‘independent deterrent’ will be dependent on US supply and oversight.
At the same time, the army at 82,000 personnel is at its lowest level since the Boer War, with further cuts anticipated. Equipment and resources have become increasingly compromised as many soldiers who have served in recent conflicts will testify.
Even when the two planned aircraft carriers are completed, one is likely to be almost immediately mothballed – another one of the long lists of cuts affecting each of the armed service’s ability to support the role that successive governments think appropriate for the UK.
The cancellation of the Trident renewal programme would enable the UK to conduct a proper defence review. One that tackles the critical questions: what are our military responsibilities and what sort of armed forces are needed to meet these obligations?
The obsession with having a nuclear deterrent has locked us into a deluded view of the UK’s international role. If we could free ourselves from this straightjacket, the possibilities of an alternative defence policy – and even an alternative foreign policy – might begin to emerge.
Peter Kennedy is a former National Officer and Director of Research at ASTMs (now part of Unite) and has a lifetime interest in the study of Military History and Defence Policy.
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