16 Jul 2013

Nuclear policy: hypocrisy and inevitability?

Sixty-eight years ago today, America detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb at its Trinity testing site in New Mexico. The blast represented the equivalent of 19,000 tonnes of TNT. And so the nuclear age was born.

By chance – perhaps by design – a group of former British military chiefs and former defence secretaries, including the Conservatives’ Liam Fox and Labour’s Lord George Robertson, have signed a letter in the Daily Telegraph demanding that the UK retain a like-for-like nuclear deterrent if the country is to retain its place as a world power. This as Danny Alexander, the coalition treasury secretary, tries to come up with cheaper alternatives.

The United Kingdom, like the United States, is a signatory to the UN nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Israel, India, and Pakistan, together with the world’s newest state South Sudan, are the only countries which have not signed. South Sudan probably hasn’t had time. The other four states refuse to sign. Pakistan and India admit to a nuclear arsenal; Israel won’t say. North Korea left the NPT in 2003.

It will cost Britain at least £25bn to retain a nuclear weapon equivalent to the present system – and almost certainly much more than that.

European deterrent?

Last month I attended a private event to mark the retirement of Britain’s top general – Sir David Richards. It was staged by France. I was struck by how warm and how extensive UK/French military relations now are. The French have their own nuclear deterrent. It is significantly different from the UK’s American-based system, not least in its delivery system. But I formed the distinct impression that the French would be more than interested in a shared deterrent with Britain based on French technology.

So the nuclear powers wrestle with their nuclear futures. As they do so, another nation, Iran, stands accused of seeking to join them. Stand in Tehran and consider that country’s security and it is an unenviable picture. Its neighbouring states of Afghanistan and Iraq deeply upheaved by western military intervention; nuclear Israel and her sophisticated military systems just two countries away; the entire Arab world destabilised by the Arab Spring – Saudi Arabia and Qatar just across the Persian Gulf.

Couple that with the Sunni/Shia tensions within Islam, and life for ostracised Iran might make even the UK generals and former defence secretaries think that a country in such a position might seek a nuclear deterrent. We still do not know for sure whether Iran seeks either the bomb itself, or the technology to build one. Indeed the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently repeated his belief that the possession of a nuclear bomb would be against the teachings of the Koran.

‘We can have a bomb, you can’t’

Threaded beneath these facts there lurks the whiff of international hypocrisy. “We can have a bomb – you can’t – because we say so,” doesn’t always wash, particularly when some of those who have the bomb refuse either to join or submit to the inspection of the NPT regime. Britain’s present bomb, indeed the US bomb, has never been subjected to the inspections to which Iran’s system has been subjected under the NPT. And no inspection of any kind has ever been permitted by Israel.

So whither Britain’s bomb in an age of austerity and in an age when America is reorienting her military priorities? Is an Anglo-French European deterrent preferable to a system based on an alliance of a by-gone age? Should Britain have a bomb at all? And if we are permitted to renew or change our deterrent, what of countries we tell not to have one at all?

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the nuclear debate is that it is so low-key.  All the signs are that Britain will do whatever it decides to do, and no one very much will mind.

Perhaps the moment is dawning when, conceivably, they should?

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12 reader comments

  1. Ben Frost says:


    This is now the 21st Century and we are still designing the capability to annihilate humanity despite having survived the cold war. As a voter I would want the current leaders of the main political party’s to justify why we need a like for like replacement of Trident. In order to believe in Tridents replacement and vote for the party’s advocating it I will need to know which nation or nations are specifically threatening the UK with nuclear annihilation to the same level of threat as in the cold war. Publicly and specifically, name those countries and their explicit threats made directly to the UK.

    We deserve to know this if the UK is to spend the next 50 years without adequate health care requirements or schools, infrastructure or properly equipped and prepared armed forces. Replacing Trident with Trident does not do anything for the ultimate goal of a nuclear free world. As fathers of a generation, that’s a world we should be looking towards for our children to live in.

    If the threat to our survival is not the same today as it was under the cold war years then clearly Trident and its costs is no longer suitable. I would like a nuclear weapons free world, but I do not believe the rest of the world wants that future yet. How do we achieve getting to the position of a nuclear free world whilst protecting ourselves in the current situation of established nuclear powers and new emerging nuclear states some of whom do not fear nuclear war in the same way the USSR did.

    I am not an experienced member of the armed forces or a defence analyst and any suggestion I propose will most likely be flawed. However if any one reading this looks back and remembers our leaders of the last 50 years you may notice some who didn’t possess the practical accoutrements of warfare either. So I make a suggestion for the sake of debate.

    Perhaps the United Kingdom could extend the production of its Astute class submarines from 7 to 12 and equip 6 of them with nuclear tomahawk cruise missiles allowing for 3-4 boats to be at sea at any one time. The deterrence could be reinforced with between 50 to 200 B61 bombs to be delivered by the new Joint Strike Fighter and other future manned or unmanned planes. This would provide the UK with a defence capability of say Israel and France but below that of China.

    The United Kingdom would no longer posses the capability to bring nuclear holocaust to continent sized nations and killing billions of innocent civilians as in the cold war with Trident. The UK would still however be capable of bringing permanent large scale suffering to any large nation which decided to annihilate the UK. Hopefully this would be enough to act as a successful deterrence whilst the UK and other nations use this period to create a time frame set over the next 30-50 years to actually rid the world of the capability to make ourselves extinct.

    I have always wanted a nuclear weapons free world but the practical road to achieving this goal will never be realised in my lifetime and probably not in my children’s. We must try to make it happen for our grandchildren. The alternative in the current situation of our time is more money being spent on a cold war weapon of deterrence and less money spent on our schools, hospitals etc for another 50 years. Our grandchildren will be no better off than we are.

    1. margaret brandreth-jones says:

      Ben your suggestions make sense. I was watching the film’ Planet of the Apes’ at weekend and looked in the final scene at the devastation of mankind . New York ‘Liberty’ under thousands of years of sand and sea,. It was romanticised and anachronistic , yet it spoke of the fears the French writer and society in general had many years ago. We as a society keep putting it to the back of our minds yet the nuclear age won’t go away.

  2. Philip Edwards says:


    Here we go with all the Doctor Strangelove loonies yet again.

    I am reminded of Gorbachev’s nuke meeting with that old empty-headed moron Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev suggested, “Let’s get rid of them all.”

    Guess what happened to THAT suggestion.

    I watched the equally empty-headed moron tory Hammond this morning, who claimed, “We have to have a deterrent”……but couldn’t say who it is supposed to deter or why they would threaten war.

    The result of course is billions down the toilet on a useless weapons system of mass destruction. If somebody is big enough to launch a major nuke attack on Britain then it isn’t going to be piecemeal, it would be massive. Which means as a small island nation we would last a matter of days, perhaps hours.

    In other words, it would deter nobody. It certainly won’t deter a mobile guerilla group intent on lighting up a nuke in London. If such crazies are ready to blow themselves up at a checkpoint they aren’t going to hesitate much over a larger “opportunity.”

    And the “deterrent” didn’t “work” during the Cuba missile crisis in 1962. It was only luck and the action of a single Soviet submarine commander who refused to fire a nuke at a crucial moment. By then the trigger-happy Yanks were ready to end the human race for good and all.

    Every country has its crackpots in important leadership roles and Britain is no exception. Can you imagine those buffoons Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Jeremy Hunt with their finger on the nuclear trigger? Or, worse, a war-mongering Tony Blair or David Cameron?

    The only safe deterrent to nuclear weapons is to be rid them all. No nukes is good nukes. The same goes for Western hypocrisy and its corrupt threats against humanity.

  3. Adrian Burns says:

    The question that always arises is ‘Who are we deterring?’.

    In short, no one. No ‘sensible’ state would ever risk a nuclear reprisal ( and to be honest I don’t think we’d be launching it anyway).

    So that leaves rogue states, and perhaps terrorists that somehow come to possess a nuclear bomb and deliver it. If they’re going to make that kind of attack they’ll do it whether we have a ‘deterrent’ or not.

    It’s pointless.

  4. paul barasi says:

    “It will cost Britain at least £25bn to retain a nuclear weapon equivalent to the present system – and almost certainly much more than that.” Well, yes: £100bn – so why persist with the government’s false figure?

    If Trident replacement were right then its proponents wouldn’t resort to another 3 lies in 4 just words: “UK’s Independent Nuclear Deterrent”.

    As for UK being at risk, what about Germany which kicked nukes off their soil? And as for UK not being able to be a world power without nukes: good!

    The nukes coalition takes in almost the whole of Parliament. If you don’t want nukes: vote Green.

  5. Dan H says:

    The comment by Ben Frost is much more interesting and challenging than the main article.

    Impartial, non-commital journalism is all well and good but it is also boring, Jon. Sometimes, a well-thought-out, passionate opinion piece covers the same ground in a more effective manner.

  6. Hasan says:

    International community must admit the reality that new nuclear powers are on the horizon. On the other hand if western powers wish to make NPT not a dead issue then they must include emerged nuclear weapons state as Recognized Nuclear Weapons state.

  7. Anon says:

    Is Trident completely obselete or is it still functionable?

    Would the development of new nuclear deterrants be a singularly devastating cash drain that we cannot afford? Or would there be spin off in the development of new technologies that we could use for business development, providing we would not be supplying nukes or other dreadful weapons to volatile nations.

    I think defence of our health and country is the biggest concern not just building more and more dreadful nukes which no one in their right mind would use. {whoops what a silly thing to say in the current world] But we can hope that sanity would prevail. Would trident protect us in the event of an attack? No one would be a winner if nuclear war broke out.

    Would a bigger and more powerful deterrant really make a difference to our survival in the event of a nuclear conflict? I doubt it.

    A more pressing problem to my mind is the over population of the world, the urban hell that so many have to survive in and the spread of urban terrorism. Over crowding fuels the latent violence that is inherent in so many, and raises old conflicts. Man seems to be a warring creature, sadly.

    Perhaps an anglo French initiative could have a dual aim if TRident is now considered useless. I do not Know.

    China , America Russia and possibly India India would seem to be major players. North Korea sadly is flexing its nuclear muscles or preparing to. It is a war that nobody would win.Why would we be targeted as we are a very small although influential nation. Our strength should be focused on other expertise not just nuclear bombs.

  8. Ben Frost says:

    In my youth I argued and debated with many people for the complete disarmament of nuclear weapons and I thoroughly believed I was right. In my 20’s and 30’s I was more conservative, practically minded I called it, and I argued and debated for a more cost effective alternative to Trident and the procurement of a range of nuclear weapons which would ensure the United Kingdoms survival. This morning I awoke believing the same things I believed in my 30’s, I awoke a conservative (though not a Tory). Now in the hot white light of the dying day I go to bed a liberal (though not a Liberal Democrat).

    The debate on Trident seems to have revealed that there are not any suitable alternatives to Trident. This seems incredible when Pakistan is designing the submarine launched Babur cruise missile based on the existing tomahawk cruise missile. Apparently they can afford it but we can’t because it’s more expensive than Trident. Of course we can trust our politicians and what they say especially when it comes to matters of war. If this really is the case and we are to believe the situation requires a: to have or not to have Trident moment, then I suggest no to a like for like replacement of Trident.

    Replacing Trident with Trident will not guarantee our future because in today’s world it will just encourage more nations to develop more types of nuclear weapons. The more nations which have them the more likely it will be that they will be used. That’s not a suitable future for our children. This is a pivotal moment in the 21st century one which will either make the 21st century safer for generations to come or not. That is why on the anniversary of the first nuclear bomb test in the Manhattan project there needs to be a great debate in this country.

    Why leave the opportunity to disarm in 50 years time when we can have it now. Why not become the first nation in history to begin the end of nuclear weapons and do it now. In the case of slavery we first argued for it and benefited economically from it. Then we became the first nation in world history to argue how wrong it was and to abolish it. Others soon followed our lead. Let’s do the same with nuclear weapons. Lets be the first people to lead the world to a nuclear weapons free future and unburden our children and their children from the expense and fear of a world of nuclear weapons.

    Our political leaders want a like for like replacement for Trident. They want a 20th century cold war weapon for the 21st century. They are offering us cold war fear and paranoia in a century which should offer hope and enlightenment. Build Trident and others will build new nuclear weapons to defend themselves from ours. End trident and commit ourselves to a nuclear weapons free future then the people of other nations will surely demand their governments do the same. France will follow then Russia, USA and China and India and Pakistan. Israel and by then Iran will probably be the last to follow.

    At some point the world has to end the proliferation of nuclear weapons either before or after a nuclear war, so why not now. There has never been a better time to do so. If I am wrong and other nations mistake this opportunity for us to disarm for weakness and press ahead with their own means of creating nuclear holocaust then we can always do the same. But now is a unique opportunity to act positively and be bold in the belief of a better world for all our children. A century of hope and enlightenment?

    1. Meg Howarth says:

      I think Ben is saying ‘no’ to Trident in his second post – too hot to re-read, I’m afraid; brain in meltdown – and if so, I agree wholeheartedly.

      A ‘Yes/No’ referendum on Trident would make much better sense than the populist sleight of hand that is the one proposed for in/out of the EU – and I’ve a strong hunch the vote would be a resounding ‘No’. Bring it on!

  9. Steve Shaw says:

    Whilst watching the package on the ‘failing NHS’, the same thought occurred to me as stories about education et al. Who it’s paying for the army of bean counters that make judgements on statistical variances? I work with lots of young graduates, their English skills are awful and maths skills questionable. I know a number of teachers and medics who absolutely despondent of the ‘management’ in the organisations. It is basically ‘points mean prizes’. Let professional managers manage and scrap the organisations who are watching over shoulders. The value they add is less than the cost out maintaining them.


    Stephen Shaw

  10. Tom Wright says:

    ‘we can have them, you can’t’. How dare we lecture others on the evils of nukes whilst holding our own? Well, frankly, its a rather better position to be in than the reverse. The first duty of the state is the protection of its own people. The moral question is actually ‘can I allow an enemy a weapon that beats all others that I do not possess’, or better still ‘can I morally leave my own people defenseless in the face of an implacable enemy?’. We can’t get rid of the Arab memory of Western behaviour with kind words and nice diplomacy – its over a 1000 years olrd and part of national and cultural identity.

    Looked at this way, failure to arm ourselves properly is an invitation to violence – and not kind to our enemies either.

    Pointless Lefty hand-wringing. Weak minded! And, to this reader anyway, frankly, cowardly.

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