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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Personal Finance Editor: Cutting out the middle man could spell disaster for employees and consumers alike

Simon Read
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch  

Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes tell you what to think. Don't let them

Memphis Barker
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week