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The case for keeping Trident is political, not military

As chief of the defence staff during the Cold War I completely endorsed our thinking on the need for a nuclear deterrent - but the world has changed since then
  • @IndyVoices

Danny Alexander, launching the Coalition’s recent Trident Alternatives Review, said he hoped it would be the start of the debate, not the end. In my judgement, as a former chief of the defence staff during the Cold War, this debate is both essential and long overdue. Yet there is still no sign of it.

Doubtless, the news that President Obama has cancelled plans for a US-Russian summit because President Putin has granted asylum to Mr Snowden will prompt claims in some quarters that we cannot in the least degree drop our nuclear guard. Such claims make no sense, however. Since the end of the massive Soviet conventional threat to Western Europe, nuclear weapons have had no military utility.

Nevertheless, we retain a so-called independent nuclear deterrent as a political tool of last resort, providing the ultimate guarantee of national security whatever the future may hold. But this is on the basis that a threat would be so direct and extreme that it could only be prevented by a continuous nuclear counter-threat of destruction for any hypothetical aggressor.

These none-too-likely circumstances were just credible during the Cold War, with the confrontation of two superpowers and the threat of world domination by an ideology irreconcilable with Western democracy. Our nuclear deterrent, while insignificant in comparison with that of the US, was just conceivably a guarantee of our territorial integrity in the unthinkable event we could not count on a credible response by America in support of Nato as a whole.

As chief of the defence staff, I completely endorsed our deterrent on that basis, and as a back-up of our then too-weak conventional forces. Today, however, I do not believe that the circumstances on which the rationality of our deterrent were based apply. The present threat is no longer interstate but from a multiplicity of ill-defined non-state players. Our deterrent has not, does not and could not counter such threats. Even the spectre of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of such hostile elements could not be countered by the threat of nuclear retaliation.

The oft-quoted price of a seat at “the top table” has also worn thin. It was never a qualification for permanent membership of the Security Council, and in today’s world it is economic strength, wise counsel and an ever-ready capability for peacekeeping which buy influence not the ability to destroy en masse.

It is this inability of our present nuclear deterrent to do the job that it is supposed to do, combined with the scarcely affordable cost of a like-for-like successor for another 40 to 50 years, that make it all the more necessary that the debate be truly opened up. I am not a unilateralist; however, because the nuclear option is simply not a credible or practical response to non-state threats I would wish to re-examine the non-nuclear options – in particular, improved intelligence. And at the same time I would want our nuclear stance to be re-examined in the light of the changed threat from nation states.

But I recognise that, in the real world, a British government would find it politically unaffordable not to be seen to have the best nuclear weapon money could buy. Even if it were minded to take a rational step, could it really defy popular feeling, which could so easily be whipped up to claim, however inaccurately,  that the Government would be giving away Britain’s ultimate guarantee of homeland security? Politically, it is far easier to let a planned successor to Trident go ahead, whatever its irrationality, and whatever its opportunity cost.

Governments are, in effect, impaled on Trident. Only breathing space – time – can get them off the hook. But that time must be used positively. To begin with, we should recognise that in the post-Cold War world we do not need to have a nuclear-firing submarine at sea at all times in order to demonstrate an effective deterrent capability. Periodically, one boat would be on patrol for training, and at other times a submarine could be at short notice to put to sea if the threat to either us or our vital interests were perceived to have increased. This variable state of readiness would still maintain that useful sense of uncertainty, and could even, at times of particular tension, appear to enhance our commitment and resolve.

Some worthwhile economies would arise from a system of reduced readiness, which, by adding to the lifespan of the existing Trident, might go some way to assuage lingering voter doubts. Even more importantly, it would allow a breathing space to perfect, hand-in-hand with improved intelligence, a more relevant, economical and usable system.

I believe stepping down from the immediate-response nature of our current nuclear stance could be implemented in a way that persuades people, at home and abroad, that it is both a sound and a progressive step, designed not to prepare quixotically again for the last war, but to present a more balanced and relevant defence programme. Moreover, by making a significant contribution to the general dialogue for multinational nuclear disarmament, it could enhance the value of our counsel in international affairs and as a key member of the Security Council.