Leading Article: Swapping Trident for a shield

Related Topics
The world, so the argument goes, is today a more dangerous place than it was during the Cold War. Then two massive nuclear arsenals held each other in calculated paralysis. With mutually assured destruction as the inevitable outcome, the possibility of the weapons being used was remote. By contrast, so we are told, today we are prey to the more real possibility of a strike by nuclear terrorists or some rogue nation with a wild leader.

The truth is that it was always more likely that any nuclear conflict would be started by a reckless superpower proxy; it is widely believed that Israeli technicians began to assemble components of what were then very basic nuclear weapons for a strike on Cairo when Egyptian tanks were racing across the Sinai as long ago as 1967. The real terror was that the superpowers would inevitably be drawn in with weapon stocks whose power was beyond comprehension. It is the decision by the Americans and the Russians, under the Start treaties, to get rid of two-thirds of those missiles that removes what was a threat to the very continuation of the world.

And what of the rest? The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - which was signed in 1970 and which expires next month unless it is renewed at the review conference that began in New York yesterday - has been a greater success than anyone could have imagined. Predictions that there would by now be 20 or 30 nuclear states have been confounded. Today, in addition to the original five nuclear states (America, Russia, Britain, France and China), there are only a handful of extra nuclear powers : India, Pakistan, Israel and possibly North Korea. Some 175 of the UN's 185 nations have signed up to an agreement that gives them access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes in return for agreeing not to try to acquire the bomb. The authority of such a treaty resides in its being passed by the biggest majority possible. The problem is that many existing signatories are becoming disgruntled with the tardy progress of the nuclear powers towards speedier disarmament.

To win them round will require significant movement from the main nuclear powers like Britain. Today, the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, will tell the conference in New York that Britain is ceasing the production of nuclear explosive material and will scrap about 100 nuclear bombs designed to be dropped from aeroplanes. It will be a bit of a con, for Britain has produced very little such material since 1979 because we recycle old warheads; indeed, the free-fall bombs are being scrapped only so that they can be turned into warheads for the Trident missile system now entering service.

There's the rub. Trident, contrary to the trends everywhere else, actually expands our nuclear capacity. The strategists will tell you that it is a "minimum" deterrent and that it is impossible to get any smaller. Such thinking is based on Cold War analysis that is now outdated. Britain should shift its emphasis to ballistic missile defence - shooting down incoming missiles, much as Patriots shot down Scuds in the Gulf war. Such a strategy would have proved useless against a massed onslaught from an arsenal the size of Russia's or America's. But current studies show that it would be an effective method for a small island like Britain to intercept a few missiles from a renegade state.

Building such a system would provide profitable work for many of our defence companies. In the difficult task of turning swords into ploughshares, building shields would be a good beginning. Such a development would enable Britain to place Trident on the negotiating table and to extract concessions from other nuclear powers in return. The time is ripe for such boldness.

React Now

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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine