After the atomic bomb was first used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the USSR raced to match the technology of the Americans and tested their first nuclear weapon in 1949. A nuclear arms race began in the late 1950s as the Cold War became increasingly hostile, and by the 1980s each side had tens of thousands of warheads (see graph below). Into this fray wandered Britain, who had still not quite come to terms with the fact that the imperial dream was over and that it had ceded superpower status to its renegade colony across the Atlantic. Britain first tested a nuclear weapon in 1952 (France would follow in 1960 and China in 1968). To date these countries, along with India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are the only ones known to have nuclear weapons, to a greater or (in North Korea’s case much) lesser extent.
After attempting to develop their own Blue Streak missile system, the British eventually realised it would be much easier to deliver death to their enemies by buying the American Polaris missiles and attaching their own nuclear warheads to the tips. A Polaris-armed submarine first went out on patrol in 1968 and, despite the end of the Cold War, the patrols continued for over a quarter of a century until another American missile system, Trident, replaced it in 1994.
The idea of these weapons during the Cold War was that if Britain was devastated by a nuclear attack, it could in turn obliterate the main cities of the country (i.e. the USSR) which launched it. For this reason some of the nuclear weapons, and the only ones which still remain today, were based on submarines patrolling the ocean and able to respond even if the mainland defences were destroyed. The ability of both sides to almost simultaneously wipe each other out is known as “mutually-assured destruction” and is the reason Trident is often referred to as a “nuclear deterrent”. It’s a situation which Yes, Prime Minister is still the best at explaining.
But is a nuclear deterrent useful on the modern world stage? It’s not possible to do much more than scratch the surface of the question in this sort of format, but the main threats to Britain in recent years have been ISIS, al-Qaeda, and arguably the occasional lone FSB agent or remaining Irish republican paramilitary. All of which are groups or individuals who are particularly difficult to target by a nuclear strike. In the case of ISIS it would feel like a hollow victory to free the people of Iraq and Syria from the caliphate only to hand back to them a radioactive wasteland. For the kind of warfare fought today, intelligence and targeted drone strikes are far more valuable for achieving our objectives. Yet still it’s difficult to shake that nagging feeling that the first person to put down their gun runs the risk of getting shot. (It should be remembered however, that South Africa once developed a nuclear weapons programme, before voluntarily dismantling it.)
Another dimension to this argument is that to simply think of the nuclear deterrent in terms of our own national interest is in fact rather selfish. That as a developed nation, a world power with resources to maintain a nuclear arsenal, we are responsible not just for protecting ourselves but also for defending smaller nations from the despotic tendencies of their better-armed neighbours. It’s an argument not without merit and is one that should at least be seriously considered. All military intervention is quite reasonably seen through the prism of Iraq these days, but at the turn of the century air support and boots on the ground in Kosovo and Sierra Leone almost certainly saved lives. An attitude of isolationism is not necessarily desirable, either in our own interests or in terms of our moral responsibility to the world community.
A reading of this view in terms of nuclear weapons, however, brings us back full circle to the question of whether the button would ever be pressed. Russia recently annexed Crimea, the territory of another sovereign state, and vastly increased its influence in other east Ukrainian provinces. Despite strong evidence to the contrary Russia denies a military involvement in the conflict and this just illustrates how differently wars are fought from seventy years ago. Could a nuclear strike be justified if there wasn’t 100% surety the country being targeted was even an aggressor? And even if there was that surety, is Crimea worth the mutually-assured destruction of starting a nuclear war for? The answer, as evidenced by the fact we’re all still here is, apparently, no.
Another possibility for retaining peace of mind as we deal with the nuclear anachronism would be to decommission the weapons multilaterally, that is, all sides agree to do it. Following the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) meetings in the 1980s, weapon numbers ceased to rise significantly and have started to come down, albeit very slowly. If the pure outdatedness of such weapons isn’t enough to encourage us to destroy them, maybe their capacity for a new kind of threat will be. The weapons storage sites in the former USSR are notoriously insecure. The International Atomic Energy Agency has recorded 18 incidents of loss or theft of plutonium and uranium, not to mention any cases which have gone unnoticed. Nuclear material could easily pass through the former Soviet states either side of the Caspian Sea and then on into Afghanistan, or through Turkey’s porous Eastern border to Iraq and Syria. Fears of terrorists creating a low-grade yet nonetheless devastating “dirty bomb” and using it have long been voiced and if we imagine that such an attack might be a suicide bomb, the nuclear deterrent quickly loses its ace in the hole. And in case we think that Russia is the only one taking poor care of its nuclear arsenal, this eye-opening video about America’s nuclear weapons should bring us back to Earth.
The decision on whether to renew the Trident system will come before Parliament this year and with a majority Conservative government the result is only likely to go one way. However, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has long been in favour of unilateral disarmament and recently shuffled his top team to make sure his shadow defence secretary was too. With many of the Labour membership supportive of Corbyn’s views but a majority of his MPs opposed there are likely to be some ugly scenes ahead, and it’s difficult to say who will come out on top. Andy Burnham has said recently that an agreement which satisfies the whole party may be “impossible”. However, what can be said is that for the first time in many years we will probably have a genuine debate about the pros and cons of maintaining Trident.