Trident: Impossible Debate


Written by Jared Lynn
20 Monday 20th September 2010
The country is locked in debate over our nuclear weapons defence system, the Trident replacement looks set to be delayed and could cost up to £20 billion from a defence budget slashed by government cuts. The arguments for and against nuclear capability will continue; but is a world without nuclear weapons a realistic dream or a precarious nightmare?
The world has changed since the nuclear peak of the Cold War in 1986 when it was rumoured around 70,000 nuclear weapons existed. Nuclear non-proliferation has drastically reduced the number to an estimated 23,375 spread through nine countries, with the UK holding a reported 185. This is a sizeable cut, but still more than enough to wipe out the entire human race.
The ownership of nuclear weapons is governed by treaties and agreements designed to limit their use to extreme circumstances. The big five nuclear powers, United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China have all signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), abiding by a “three-pillar” system focussed on non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to use nuclear technology peacefully. The other nuclear countries; India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, while not signing the treaty have indicated a no-first use policy, or nuclear attack only if they face invasion from an enemy. That’s great news, but treaties can be broken and we’re placing an awful lot of trust in the leaders of these states.
The issue of trust leads to the most obvious argument in favour of nuclear capability and in theory deters against any first strike; the attacker can expect retaliation of equal or greater power if a treaty or agreement is broken. The fear lies in the potential damage of nuclear weapons use – both physically and socially – witnessed at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. However, weapons have become far more powerful since, with the Russians testing the hydrogen Tsar Bomba in 1961 with a yield of 50 megatons: that’s 1,400 times more powerful than the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs, and ten times the strength of every explosive used during World War II. The threat of that explosion should sway any leader contemplating a nuclear attack.
But what if it didn’t? That question leads to the criticism of nuclear weapons. The very threat of such destruction can be removed with complete disarmament: if you don’t have it, you can’t use it. This again relies on trust that everyone has disarmed and not a single nuclear weapon exists in the world; but as Margaret Thatcher rightly pointed out to Ronald Reagan, being unable to un-invent the technology, the threat will always remain with us. The very nature of ideological differences makes a world free of nuclear weapons an idealistic dream and an unreasonable fantasy: it will never happen.
The threat of nuclear weapons is not limited to just sovereign states. The instability in the relationship between East and West coupled with the increase in insurgents and extremists creates a less controllable nuclear threat. The greatest worry arises from suitcase bombs which were rumoured to have been developed by the United States and Russia during the Cold War. While some experts have rubbished the threat of suitcase bombs due to their high costs and advanced technologies, others have suggested that missing Russian explosives pose a serious threat.
This threat – whether realistic or not – is the danger in a post-9/11 world. However, Britain’s presence and influence as a global power continues to diminish in comparison to the United States and the rising strength of China, so can we really justify such an expensive independent nuclear defence system? We are no longer at perceived risk from a global superpower like a Cold War Soviet Union. Today’s threat comes from guerrilla groups using dirty bombs and we cannot fight them with billion pound nuclear submarines, after all, who would we be firing at? The bomber at Leicester Square tube station? It’s simply not plausible.
Britain also has strong support from NATO which runs a nuclear sharing system, whereby US weapons are deployed throughout Europe in non-nuclear countries. The agreement has faced criticism that it breaks the rules of the NPT as the weapons are controlled by the US but can be used by the hosts’ aircraft during wartime. Britain’s long history of independence and empire means that it is unlikely to rely on support from others states and become a peripheral nuclear power. National pride and independence is a key issue in Britain’s nuclear capabilities.
Whatever the future for Britain’s nuclear defence, the debate will continue. A world without nuclear weapons is an idealist dream because the technology and the threat posed will always exist. A world free of nuclear weapons requires trust and that’s one thing we’re short of. Nuclear weapons are here to stay – until we develop something more powerful that is.

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