The failed Trident missile test is emblematic of a wider malaise

The UK Government insists that it is in favour of multilateral disarmament but this pretence has been laid bare by its vehement opposition to the forthcoming Nuclear Ban Treaty.

Steve Hucklesby
23 January 2017

Demonstrators at an anti-Trident CND rally in Parliament Square, London, July, 2016.Dominic Lipinski/ Press Association. All rights reserved.How fitting that the UK’s failed test firing of a Trident nuclear missile in June occurred as Donald Trump launched his Presidential campaign.  President Trump has stated that he is not in favour of subsidising the cost of Europe’s nuclear weapons.  The US-owned Trident missiles are leased to the UK under the terms of a mutual defence agreement.  Once the bedrock of US/UK relations, this agreement no longer enjoys such an exalted status.  There is increasing ambivalence on both sides and consequently the UK’s leasing of US nuclear missiles has every chance of spiralling off course.

Why?  Firstly, the strategic arguments for nuclear weapons are different for the UK and for the US.  These considerations are essentially a balance between the strategic value of nuclear weapons on the one hand and the cost (both financial and ethical) on the other.  On the ‘value’ side the United States cannot easily give up nuclear weapons without ramifications for the Korean peninsula and its brinkmanship with Russia.  The UK on the other hand has much greater latitude.  If we were to retire our US-leased Trident nuclear missiles, the world would not fundamentally change.  The UK would still retain substantial influence as a military power through the strength and capability of our conventional forces.

On the ‘cost’ side of the equation, nuclear weapons states share a common ethical discomfort when they advance the argument that national security is enhanced by their threat to breach international law in the killing of 100,000s of innocent people.  This diabolical threat can only reasonably be justified[1] if the alternative of declining to threaten mass destruction would clearly leave us open to nuclear attack.  For the UK this is not the case.  The likelihood of a future nuclear attack on the UK, from Russia for example, has diminished in part due to the more positive impacts of globalisation. In spite of the poor behaviour of North Korea, there is no possibility of a nuclear attack on the UK from that distant state. The United States have a different set of security considerations, but for the UK at least, the balance sheet of ‘ethical cost’ verses ‘benefit’ of nuclear weapons is already in arrears and heading towards bankruptcy. 

The UK government has anchored arguments in support of nuclear weapons in a rhetoric that has changed little since the Cold War.  This has been made possible by the lack of any effective international multilateral disarmament process.  However, this too is changing. 

On March 27, the majority of the world’s states will begin to negotiate a new treaty to clarify that the threat of use of nuclear weapons is clearly illegitimate under international law.  For nuclear weapons states (particularly those such as the UK that place value on international law) the perceived ethical cost of threatening mass destruction will increase.  The UK Government insists that it is in favour of multilateral disarmament but this pretence has been laid bare by its vehement opposition to the forthcoming Nuclear Ban Treaty.

The Trident missile test failure has been exposed in the UK media just as Donald Trump takes office in the White House.  Although he questions the sanity of investment in nuclear weapons, President Trump is no nuclear pacifist.  He sees the United States’ nuclear arsenal in the context of “America first” and “making America great again”.  Donald Trump’s pledge to ‘outmatch’ others in a nuclear arms race is no doubt an embarrassment to the UK government given its carefully crafted diplomacy on nuclear weapons.  But the Trident missile system has always been totemic of the United States’ stress on military dominance.  At this juncture, its technical failure in the hands of UK submariners seems particularly apt.

[1] Note: Christian and other faith leaders in the UK are clear that no justification is possible. “Security policies based on the threat of the use of nuclear weapons are immoral and ultimately self-defeating.” Joint faiths’ statement, March 2015.

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