Very soon the Government will have to decide whether to go ahead with a like for like successor to TRIDENT. Indeed, for entirely political reasons, it has already jumped the gun in forcing a Commons vote authorising the Government to do just that. Nevertheless, political commitments apart, I believe that it is in the public interest that there should be a debate on whether this country really needs and can afford to have such a replacement on military grounds; and equally whether it can afford not to have one on purely political grounds.
After the American attack in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when atomic bombs, far less powerful than the hydrogen weapons of today, revealed to the world the catastrophic consequences of ever again using them, nuclear weapons have always been of more political than military significance – something that might just be used under extreme circumstances rather than as an integral part of any planned battle plan.
At the height of the Cold War, however, they were no less necessary for that. Indeed nuclear weapons became the cornerstone of NATO’s strategy, in that it was reckoned that the best and the cheapest way to defend Central Europe from any covetous eyes of the Soviet Union was for NATO to confront them with a sizeable but far from superior conventional force, which would initially engage any aggression but, if unable to cope with the scale of the attack, could trigger the use of nuclear weapons in some shape or form.
As the “mutually assured destruction” which would then have occurred would be too horrific to contemplate it was considered highly unlikely that any aggressor would contemplate that the prize was worth the risk he would be running. As the prize from which a potential aggressor had to be deterred would be no less than the ideological domination of the whole of Europe, the unleashing of nuclear weapons in such extreme circumstances did carry that degree of credibility which is so essential if a deterrent is to be successful; and that same credibility could also have been accorded to our own deterrent if our homeland had been threatened with direct attack.
As Chief of Defence Staff in the 1980s, I wholeheartedly supported this strategy of “Flexible Response”; and indeed believed it made a significant contribution to a stable European peace spread over a remarkably long period of time.
Now, however, the international scene has radically changed both politically and in the scope and method of its conflicts. Even with President Putin’s power manoeuvring on the very borders of Russia, there is no massive conventional threat to Central Europe and the threats likely to face this country more directly have also fundamentally changed, moving inexorably away from clear cut “all in” interstate wars towards those which are threatened and often selectively executed by a multiplicity of ill-defined non state terrorist movements. These could never, even if threatening blackmail with some WMD device be countered by nuclear retaliation. Indeed in today’s intensely globalised and economically interlocked world it would be almost impossible for anyone to use such an indiscriminate weapon under any circumstances, without making any crisis infinitely worse for themselves as well as everyone else. Whatever the excuse, it would be held to be a crime against humanity!
So with these changes in the international scene there is an urgent need, before a final decision on TRIDENT’s exact successor, to take a fresh look at what other options exist for a credible deterrent; always accepting when dealing with any prospective threat that prevention, if possible, remains eminently preferable to a sometimes messy and invariably punishing cure. Such a reappraisal needs to be considered from military, economic and political points of view.
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From a military point of view, the 9/11 air attack on the governmental and economic heartland of the United States and the less but still serious attacks in London, Paris, Brussels and elsewhere demonstrated only too clearly that a nuclear deterrent however advanced and powerful has not and cannot, in the future, prevent the sort of threats and challenges we face today and are likely to continue to confront us. Moreover, in the aftermath of those attacks there was never any question nor a need to fire a nuclear weapon back in retribution, because of the impossibility of selecting an appropriate nuclear target. In military terms therefore our so called independent deterrent has not only completely lost its credibility, but a like for like successor would no longer be capable of doing the job for which it was designed. Whereas precision missiles or guided weapons, with a conventional warhead supported by state of the art electronic counter measures and greatly improved intelligence could well regain that credibility.
Against the background of there being no military necessity, this country can certainly not afford, in times of ongoing financial stringency, the very large (and ever rising) extra expenditure which would be required to set up and sustain an ever ready virtually invulnerable replacement for TRIDENT. This financial problem has been given added poignancy by the Treasury laying it down that such extra expenditure must come from within the limits presently set for the planned defence budget. This, as has recently been made clear, needs to be sustained if not increased, rather than actually being cut back by a further overloading, if the really essential needs of the armed forces and of cyber, intelligence and security are not to be dangerously underfunded. All of which gives added urgency to finding a cheaper as well as more credible alternative for our deterrent.
This leaves the question of whether holding our own nuclear deterrent still has a political value, as some sort of status symbol, particularly after Brexit. In this respect I would make three relevant points.
First, for all practical and utility purposes our deterrent has never been truly independent and if we had not possessed one over the Cold War years we certainly would not be seeking to acquire one now.
Secondly, even the often quoted status of “having a seat at the table” has worn very thin. Holding a nuclear weapon was never a qualification for membership of the Security Council; and today it is economic strength, wise counsel and an ever ready ability to deploy selective military force for peacekeeping and conflict resolution which brings prestige and influence, rather than the capability to destroy indiscriminately and en masse.
Thirdly, if the Government is serious as it purports to be about making a positive contribution to the dialogue on the reduction and ultimate elimination of all nuclear weapons (and the continuing posturing of North Korea and earlier of Iran in this field make this even more urgent) it would be irresponsible if the main example we set was to be a wholly negative one; retaining for ourselves, for at least another 50 years an excessive nuclear capability which we did not really need on military grounds. It is so easy to hide behind multilateralism which has such wide international support, and others may indeed not follow any lead which we give; but you have to start somewhere and cannot for ever be waiting for others to make the first move. At least we could set an example which could well bring us considerable international kudos.
On many counts therefore there is a strong case for at least a fresh approach to the whole problem of deterrent. The trouble is that when this country continued to maintain and develop its own nuclear deterrent first with an air delivered weapon from a V Bomber, through Polaris to the present TRIDENT it was presented to Parliament and to the country as not only a political weapon of last resort but also as the ultimate guarantee of this country’s homeland security. Moreover, without any clear idea how it achieved this, its criteria became deeply embedded in the public psyche and conscience as a sine qua non.
So in the political world we live in, could any political party anxious not to alienate voters, be seen not to be supporting the best nuclear weapon that money can buy? Furthermore could any Government even if mindful of taking a more rational and forward looking step defy popular opinion which could so easily be, and undoubtedly would be, whipped up to highlight what in terms of our security we could be said to be giving away? It might become politically so much easier to go ahead with the planned successor to TRIDENT whatever the cost and drawbacks.
In practical terms the Government are on a hook as regards TRIDENT’s replacement, from which they can only be released by being provided with a breathing space.
Delaying a final decision on TRIDENT’s successor and immediately postponing any expenditure on specialist submarines will help. But the time gained should then be used positively. To begin with we should recognise, what few would deny, that in the post-cold war world we do not need to have a nuclear firing submarine at sea continuously for 365 days a year to demonstrate a deterrent capability.
Periodically one boat would be at sea for training purposes and at other times there could always be one at short notice to put to sea, if the threat to our homeland was perceived to have increased. While at all times other nuclear powered submarines would be at sea whose exact weaponry would not be too obvious to the uninitiated.
This variable state of readiness would still maintain that important uncertainty, and at moments of crisis, could even emphasise our extra commitment and concern which is all part and parcel of any deterrent. It would also lead to worthwhile savings particularly, by degrees, in the number of boats which would in turn lead to the lengthening of the lifespan of the existing TRIDENT well into the next decade without any new boats being added and needed. This psychologically would keep us longer in the nuclear club and might even sway any lingering electoral doubters.
Most importantly it would provide a necessary transitional period in which after further urgent consideration to perfect and adapt a more relevant, economical and usable way of keeping at bay and warding off any varied and realistic threats now facing this country. There are a number of practical and affordable options now available, to which greatly improved intelligence, both electronic and satellite will provide the key. After all to be forewarned is to be forearmed.
I would hope that this gradual stepping down from the no longer credible immediate and nuclear retaliatory nature of our current deterrent could be interpreted and implemented in a way that persuaded the nation as a whole that it was a sound and progressive step designed not to reprepare quixotically for past conflicts – hot or cold, but to invest in a more balanced, more relevant and effective defence programme which would better guarantee the future safety and security of our country.
Field Marshal Bramall served as Chief of the General Staff 1979 to 1982, and as Chief of the Defence Staff 1982 to 1985.
© Field Marshal Bramall