The United Kingdom is sleepwalking into renewing humanity’s deadliest weapons

The British public are tired of simplified, polarising campaign messages, and are fast losing faith in their elected representatives, setting the stage for a renewal of Trident by default.

Christopher Lockyear
16 July 2016

Trident replacement decision, July 18. Stephen Kelly / Press Association. All rights reserved.On July 18, parliament will vote on renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system. The British public are tired of simplified, polarising campaign messages, and are fast losing faith in their elected representatives, setting the stage for a renewal of Trident by default.

The country’s state of internal crisis cannot be an excuse for us to sleepwalk into this decision. This vote is too important and too existential to ignore due to ‘campaign fatigue’. There needs to be a deeply searching debate.

The lifetime cost of replacing Trident, running into several tens of billions, is of course hugely relevant, as is the nation’s defence, but no less relevant is the thinking behind what it means for a nation to continue to invest in weapons of mass destruction with the capacity to kill millions.

Illogical deterrence?

Deterrence, the logical framework frequently used to justify Trident, is based on a fundamental assumption that with your finger on the button you will act rationally. This logic is flawed. If those in control are rational, then the only decision they could make is to not use nuclear weapons. If they are not rational, they will not accept the logic.

Denis Healey, Secretary of State for Defence (1964- 1970) and ‘alternate decision-taker’ (should the Prime Minister be incapacitated) revealed in 2008 that he would not have given the order to press the button. He knew that there was then no point in killing 20 million Russians.  He also knew that even if he acted pre-emptively, a huge swathe of the British public could be dead within half an hour.  He judged that there was simply no point in a first strike, and no point in retaliating.

But what if Healey’s theoretical calculation was wrong? Could there be a credible threat of a nuclear strike against the UK? And could Trident even give a credible counter-threat if the basic logic were to hold?

Not according to Field Marshall Lord Bramall, a former head of the armed forces who states that “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism”, or Michael Portillo, former Defence  Secretary under John Major, who described David Cameron’s argument that threats from North Korea have made it essential for Britain to renew its Trident as “absurd”.

And what about the irrational leader with their finger on the button? Whether they realized that the chances of retaliation by a sane rationalist would be limited. or didn’t care— there would be little deterrence effect.

Delusory Independence?

The government claims that the UK’s Trident programme is independent. It is neither politically or operationally independent.

From the signing of the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) to its 2024 extension, Britain’s nuclear weapons have always been inextricably dependent on the US:

  • The UK leases its Trident II D5 missiles from the US;
  • The UK pays the US for submarines maintenance, and missile replacement in the US;
  • The UK’s warhead is based on a US-developed warhead;
  • To aim a nuclear missile, the UK relies upon the US controlled Global Positioning System;

The UK cannot develop, maintain, or even launch a nuclear weapon without the support of the US. In fact, it is unthinkable that the UK could even unilaterally decide to carry out a nuclear strike.

Paradoxical proliferation?

The 2015 Review Conference of the Parities to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), heard the UK claim that it is “at the centre of international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, to create a nuclear weapon free world”, but simultaneously it will “retain a credible and effective minimum nuclear deterrent for as long as the global security situation makes that necessary”.

The Hiroshima bomb that killed or wounded approximately 150,000 people had a yield of 15 kilotons. The UK’s current warheads have a yield of 100 kilotons. Each submarine can carry up to 40 warheads. This raises the question: How is a ‘credible minimum’ defined?

Further, the transfer of knowledge, and leasing of hardware as agreed in the MDA contradicts the NPT. Article I of the NPT reads “each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly”.

The UK then, cannot take any moral high ground in calling other NPT states to comply with the NPT when it is holding it in contempt itself?

Democratic regression?

Perhaps the least questioned aspects of our somnambulant response to replacing the  ‘continuous at sea deterrent’ is what this means for democracy.

The decision to launch a nuclear weapon lies at the command of the Prime Minister. By putting such awesome power in the hands of one person, we have, as Harvard professor Elaine Scarry puts it  “bypassed the distributional structures that characterise democratic governance”, and we are, in effect, living in a state of  “chronic emergency rule”.

Despite recent precedents of parliamentary consultation before sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, the power to commit the UK intervention overseas rests in the hands or the Prime Minister, not the peoples’ representatives in parliament.

By replacing Trident we are, by default, accepting this hegemonic formulation of our constitution—we are ceding control of our existence. With other nuclear powers also concentrating this extreme power to a handful of people, and with the global reach of nuclear arsenals, we are living under a global umbrella of emergency rule and catastrophic destruction.

With these costs, flawed logics, hypocrisies and assaults on democracy isn’t it worth debating the renewal of Trident, instead of sleepwalking into more of the same?

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