Britain’s nuclear deterrent doesn’t work

Mike Hedges questions why we continue to waste money on a weapons system we’ll never use

Great Britain has had an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent since it became the third country to test its own nuclear weapon in October 1952. Some years later, in 1957, a Royal Air Force bomber flew above Malden Island in the Pacific and dropped a nuclear bomb, which exploded at 8,000 feet. An observer wrote that:

“An enormous ball of fire appeared that changed swiftly into a bubbling cauldron of coppery red streaked with grey. This fantastic mushroom bridged sea and sky like some giant waterspout.”

Since 1998 the Trident programme has been the British government’s operational nuclear weapons system. We are thought to have over 200 thermonuclear warheads of which 160 are operational, though the government has refused to declare the exact number.

The dictionary definition of deterrent includes “military strength or an ability to defend a country or retaliate strongly enough to deter an enemy from attacking.” If Britain’s nuclear deterrent were to work no non nuclear power would dare to attack us or any of our dependencies, allies or overseas territories. Evidently, this script wasn’t read by the Argentinian junta who invaded the Falklands without fear of a nuclear strike. The nuclear deterrent failed completely to deter Argentina. It believed, correctly, that not only would Britain not use it but would not even threaten to use it.

Other countries we have failed to deter with our nuclear weapons include Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait, and Egypt over their annexing of the Suez Canal. The USA may have had nuclear weapons but whilst it used heavy conventional bombing and napalm it never threatened North Vietnam with nuclear attack let alone used nuclear weapons on it despite being forced out of South Vietnam.

The USSR failed to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. The Taliban were not “deterred” by their nuclear arsenal. Instead they forced the USSR out of Afghanistan.

Supporters of nuclear weapons will say that they have stopped a major war in Europe. But even if the ‘mutual assured destruction’ of the nuclear arms race was true of the immediate post war period until the fall of the Berlin wall, it is certainly untrue today. Does anyone seriously expect present-day Russia to start invading the rest of Europe? If it wants to make an aggressive act it is more likely to turn the gas supplies off than fire nuclear weapons.

So why do we continue to want to invest in nuclear weapons that we will not only not use, but not threaten to use even when a British overseas territory is invaded. The terrible nature of nuclear weapons together with their environmental impact means that it is unlikely any respectable government would use them for fear of the political backlash from the rest of the world.

Why then does Britain continue to sustain its misnamed nuclear “deterrent”, which is not even independent because it can only be fired with US consent? The answer appears less military than political. It is seen as a guarantee of Britain’s continuing place as one of the permanent five members on the UN Security Council.

Why should Britain wish to upgrade the trident nuclear weapons system at the cost of several billion pounds when there are no circumstances we can envisage of using or threatening to use it?

This is not an argument for unilateral nuclear disarmament. It is an economic rather than moral argument, against spending money on something that cannot be used.

Mike Hedges is Labour AM for Swansea East.

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