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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