They sail beneath the waves almost totally unseen carrying more firepower than was unleashed in World War Two. The nuclear ballistic missile submarine or SSBN is the ultimate safeguard from direct attack by a foreign power. Not knowing where one of these Trident nuclear missile armed behemoths is at any one time means that an enemy country cannot launch an attack without sustaining unthinkable losses to their own people and national infrastructure – a concept known quite aptly in military circles as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).
It is truly stomach wrenching to contemplate just how devastating these vessels potentially are to humanity itself and it is that fact above all others that has spurred the campaign for nuclear disarmament. In Britain, the country that played a big role in developing America’s atomic bomb and the third independent nuclear power to rise, the lobby for nuclear disarmament has seen a powerful ally take prominence in British politics in the form of the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn has been a prolific anti-nuclear campaigner for many years and when he was elected to leader of the Labour Party he made it abundantly clear that if elected he planned to take the first steps to the nuclear disarmament of the Royal Navy. Corbyn even went as far as to remove his shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle, in a cabinet reshuffle because supposedly she was not against the nuclear deterrent unlike her replacement, Emily Thornbury, who is much more vocally opposed to Britain’s nuclear submarines.
In an, a post on his website entitled Nuclear Madness he says;
“Nobody is made more secure by this insane waste of resources on destruction.”
Corbyn’s Labour Party is not alone in British politics with their anti-nuclear stance. The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are also firmly against a nuclear armed Britain. However, David Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party disagrees and have begun the process of replacing the Trident nuclear missile-armed Vanguard-class submarines with a fleet of three new Successor-class vessels believing the nuclear deterrence is key to Britain’s security.
Clearly these are fundamentally opposite opinions and this has reignited the debate with more passion than ever before. So the question becomes; is the nuclear deterrence relevant in the 21st century especially in light of the threat from the Islamic State terror group which the average person on the street views as the most immediate threat to their way of life?
To begin to answer this question one must first look at the history of the nuclear deterrence itself which can be traced back to work carried out in British laboratories before the Second World War. Like America and Germany, Britain was carrying out the ground work that would ultimately lead to nuclear weapons which Britain viewed as a way of safeguarding her empire against the ever increasing threat from Germany, Japan, Italy and the Soviet Union all of whom were expanding at the time. Winston Churchill wrote of the potential of nuclear weapons as a deterrence in the 1930s even though they were still a fantasy at that time. When war broke out in 1939 Britain lacked the resources to continue the work on her own but when America joined the fray in 1941 the scientists involved were transferred to the United States to work on the Manhattan Project which would lead to the world’s first atomic bombs which ended World War II when they were used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which resulted in almost 200,000 deaths.
After the war, Britain expected to be repaid for its part in developing its ally’s superweapon with atomic weapons for their own forces built with US support. However, the United States refused and pulled all support for Britain’s nuclear weapons program wanting to establish a nuclear monopoly. The British scientists returned to Britain and were instructed to work on the first British atomic bomb using the experience they had gained in the United States.
Britain detonated its first atomic weapon on October 3rd 1952 and were soon fielding a fleet of bombers for the Royal Air Force to deliver them on to a target should World War III break out. Realising they had lost their monopoly by the 1950s the US relaxed its policy and began supplying British forces with their more advanced nuclear weapons with which to square off with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. By the late 1950s, Britain and the US developed a joint operational plan for the use of nuclear weapons against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe but the bombers that carried them were becoming increasingly vulnerable to advanced Soviet fighters and surface-to-air weapons. Therefore, the two countries began developing the Skybolt missile which was a very long range nuclear-armed weapon which could be fired by the bombers far from the target. However, when President John F. Kennedy arrived at the White House he pulled the plug on the project which left Britain’s nuclear bombers on the verge of becoming obsolete.
In order to keep Britain in the nuclear game with the United States which was (and remains) important both strategically and politically to Washington, Kennedy offered to sell Polaris submarine-launched nuclear missiles for Britain to put in its own force of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Thus the Royal Navy took over the nuclear deterrence role from the Royal Air Force in the late 1960s. By the 1980s the Polaris-armed submarines were in need of replacement and this led to Britain purchasing the UGM-133 Trident II submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for use in four new Vanguard-class submarines.
Despite the end of the Cold War the submarines continued to carry Britain’s nuclear deterrent through the nineties and the first decade of the 21st century but are now fast approaching the end of their useful lives and need replacing themselves which has led to the current debate in London. Aside from their moral implications, the cost of replacing these three vessels is one of the biggest sources for opposition with varying figures being thrown around by those for and against David Cameron’s plans. Any figures for the Successor-class at the moment are speculative but in 2014 the independent Trident Commission estimated the lifetime cost (building and operation) of a Trident replacement as being at least £100 billion. With Britain still recovering from the economic recession that blighted Europe and North America almost eight years ago it is easy to see why even leaders of the British armed forces are starting to voice their opposition with Britain’s conventional forces looking increasingly stretched having to tackle Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya as well as maintain garrisons on the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. To put this figure in to perspective it is the equivalent sum to how much it would cost to build approximately 95 Type 45 destroyers or 16 Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
That is a staggering realization so just why does David Cameron and his Conservative Party feel that the need to spend that much on a weapon system that in theory will never be used? Just what is the threat to Britain in 2016 that justifies such an expense?
The first answer that springs to mind is of course, Russia. After the initial honeymoon period of the post-Cold War years, the rise of Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the explosion of Russian nationalism has seen Russia projecting its influence beyond its borders once more to such an extent that it would not be inaccurate to say that we are truly in the grip of “Cold War II”. Russian successes in Georgia and the Crimea have only encouraged Putin further leading to his boldest step yet; putting Russian forces in to Syria to support President Assad whom the west wants removed. This has had consequences beyond Syria’s borders with British aircraft (below) and warships playing cat-and-mouse with their Russian counterparts in the Baltic and North Atlantic while the war of words becomes more bitter.
But just how far is Putin willing to push things with the west to achieve his aims? Excluding the incident earlier this year in which a Turkish fighter shot down a Russian Su-24 strike aircraft near the Turkey-Syria border Putin has been very careful to avoid a direct confrontation with the western powers regarding Syria. If one looks at the situation with Russia regarding Syria in a Cold War context, then both sides know the possible consequences of escalating the situation in Syria. While it is not openly admitted, the fact that the United States, Britain, France and Russia all have nuclear weapons and all have interests in Syria is what has kept these powers from reacting to one another militarily. If we take the Su-24 shootdown but without the risk of nuclear weapons, then it is likely that Russia would have responded to Turkey with military force plunging Europe in to another massive conventional war. If proof was ever needed that this could happen, you need only remember that World War I began with one man armed only with a handgun and a strong sense of nationalism.
But just as nuclear weapons have prevented open conflict with Russia thus far they have also created the problem of just what the west can do about Putin’s actions in Syria. No one wants the situation to escalate to the point of direct confrontation but with Russian forces firmly embedded in the country to meet Putin’s aims then the west is clearly in a weak position. Only time will tell how this chapter of history will ultimately play out.
Beyond Russia other potential nuclear threats to Britain come from China despite the recent economic progress made between London and Beijing. China is increasingly locking horns with its old enemies of Taiwan and Japan both of whom are supported by the United States and therefore by association, Britain. To the south of China, the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons and missile programs (right) while India and Pakistan still stare at one another across the border with their nuclear weapons sitting ready for the final confrontation. Then of course there is the situation with Iran’s nuclear weapons program which despite having calmed down somewhat remains a source for possible conflict in the future should relations with the west worsen again. If any of these countries utilise nuclear weapons against their neighbours, then things could start happening very quickly that could see the world’s other nuclear powers dragged in leading to the potential for an apocalypse however it is this fact that has largely kept these countries in line with their weapons.
The cynic would perhaps argue that Britain and America’s nuclear weapons have not done anything to curb these developments and may even be responsible for encouraging them. The fact of the matter is however that despite efforts to stop it, nuclear proliferation is increasing around the world. When it boils down to it nuclear weapons are simply a matter of physics rather than some state secret and theoretically, any country or even a well-organized terrorist group anywhere in the world can build them if they pour enough resources and research in to making them.
So to reference Jeremy Corbyn’s statement about how safer the world would be without British nuclear weapons we have to remember that the threat remains to us from across the globe regardless. Removing the nuclear weapons capability from the British arsenal will not change that fact but retaining those weapons will mean that Britain will be able to exert its influence on the world stage when it comes to dealing with other nuclear armed countries as opposed to surrendering it to a nuclear armed ally who may not have our best interests at heart. This, coupled with the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), means that far from being a weapon system that may never be used the nuclear deterrence is in fact in constant use by its very existence.
Does that justify a £100bn price tag?
That’s a question we each have to ask ourselves regarding our view of the world since as tax-payers we are funding the weapons. The debate will never go away even if Corbyn gets his wish and the weapons are dismantled; the debate will then become about resurrecting the deterrence amid a loss of political influence and/or a direct threat to national security. Whatever your views on their use in the 21st century just remember this one undeniable fact; the threat of nuclear weapons did prevent World War III throughout the years of the Cold War and if we are truly in Cold War II then surely we should retain that asset to continue to do the same.