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.

15 thoughts on “Britain’s nuclear deterrent doesn’t work

  1. ‘Why should Britain wish to upgrade the Trident nuclear weapons system … when there are no circumstances we can envisage of using or threatening to use it?’.

    Because there are ‘unknown unknowns’, things we do not know we don’t know!

  2. As the author knows, Labour has always been nuclear-sceptic in Opposition but fervently pro-nuclear when in government. British Nationalists, such as Labour and the Tories, adore the idea of ‘Big Britain’ and ‘nuclear Britian’, as it plays to their misguided notion of being “at the top table”. It means piffle in reality, except that it costs us, the Welsh taxpayers, a fortune.

  3. Are we suddenly back in the Eighties? Too much of that decade had to be spent explaining, very slowly and using short words, to otherwise intelligent that the purpose of a nuclear deterrent is not to deter low intensity conventional warfare but to deter nuclear attack. As such it was completely successful. The irony is that some of those we struggled to convince of this simple and obvious fact were later, as part of the Blair Government, the people responsible for ordering the updated Trident after the threat of direct nuclear attack had receded. As KP points out, we still need some form of nuclear deterrent, given the increased range of possible WMD threats we now face – the ‘unknown unknowns’ speech is quite correct when you read the actual words carefully – but there is a legitimate debate among strategists whether the Trident programme, designed for the Cold War, is the most effective and cost-efficient delivery system for the deterrent in our current situation. It is a pity this article did not take the opportunity to engage with that debate but instead tried reheat arguments that were weak enough thirty years ago.

  4. If you follow the logic of Kp and John Winterson Richards we should tear up the non proliferation treaty and make every country have nuclear weapons. I am not arguing for the nuclear weapons we have got to be scrapped just that we do not spend money on new ones not a CND position but one driven by finance.

  5. Mike, no one said a word against the NPT. Your article and the comments refer to Britain, which is already a nuclear power, so any updating of our deterrent falls outside the NPT. If you are arguing purely on the basis of finance, you would have been on firmer ground had you questioned why our deterrent still needs a SLBM delivery system, the most expensive option, when cheaper delivery systems might suit the changed strategic situation better, but your article failed to discuss those cheaper options, and so missed the opportunity to initiate a more relevant and interesting debate.

  6. Presumably Mike Hedges has a house full of CRT televisions rather than the more modern flat screen designs. Black and white or colour, I wonder?

    Sometime you just have to upgrade, no matter the cost!

  7. A well written article Mr Hedges. I thoroughly agree with you. We can not justify the waste of money on these weapons of mass destruction that we could never justify using. I personally can not understand why there is no NATO ‘pool’ of a nuclear deterrent jointly managed with our allies in NATO. One thing I do believe is that the money that would be wasted by creating new weapons will certainly not benefit Wales – or any other part of Britain.

  8. We don’t need them, we can’t afford them but as long at UK plc remains the same, we will always have them. If Scotland does break off from Westminster next year, then Milford Haven along with perhaps Devonport, is the most likely home. It still sends shivers down my spine when our First Minister welcomed nukes with open arms, if the Scots turfed them out. There are not too many things I would lie in the road and get arrested for, but that’s one of them.

  9. Stuck in a time warp! The current threat isn’t Russia it’s renegade states like Iran and North Korea who may not have the technology for mass destruction by any means at the moment but we can’t afford to wait until they do. Same applies to international terrorists which mostly revolve around the religion of peace – people who have shown a callous disregard for human life with a global reach. Should they achieve the means for mass destruction they are quite likely to use them.

    So, if we want to retain the means for both a deterrent effect and an equalising response to weapons of mass destruction then we need to invest. Maintenance, repair and renewal is standard practice for most technology based systems or they may not work when we need them. Nothing lasts for ever!

    My own view is that we are quite likely to have to rely on the Israelis when the time comes – they won’t turn a crisis into a week long conference!

  10. Yet following 9/11 the Americans did not use their nuclear weapons, following the capture of the Americam Embasy and the hostages in Iran America did not use its nuclear weapons. They have not been used since Nagasaki

  11. @JRW
    The logic of the UK having nuclear weapons to deter terrorists could mean that a nuclear bomb detonated by terrorists in London would result in the UK retaliating by dropping a nuclear device on Leeds!
    The very nature of terrorism means that a nuclear deterrent does not deter terrorists.
    However terrorists having nuclear capabilities could be argued to be an effective deterrent against the UK using their nuclear or even conventional military resources in countries where terrorists support a cause or have allies.

    Regarding “renegade states” such as Iran and North Korea, ie two of the ten states who have or are developing nuclear weaponry: Your argument appears to boil down to – the people of the UK are safer if the UK is armed with up to date nuclear weapons.
    So it follows that the people of countries without those weapons are less safe than the people of the UK.
    Or perhaps you think that the people of those countries are equally safe because the UK has a nuclear capability.
    Or are those countries safer because they do not have nuclear capabilities.
    Hypothetically would Iran be less likely to nuke the UK than nuke say Spain? Personally I think the UK would be the more likely target and it would be down to various factors relating to the UK’s relationship with Iran but the existence of a UK nuclear arsenal wouldn’t be one of them and so wouldn’t be a deterrent.
    And even if it were there’s always the terrorists ….

  12. Iran is only a rogue state in the warped minds of some American extremists. Iran has never attacked another state in modern times. It’s democratic Mossadeq government was overthrown by a CIA inspired coup and a stooge dictator installed. After he was overthrown, Iran was attacked by Saddam Hussain who used poison gas to the complete indifference of his American allies. The war lasted years and cost untold hundreds of thousands of lives. Iran condemned the terrorist attack on the world trade centre and co-operated with the US in Afghanistan, only for George Bush to say it was part of an axis of evil with Iraq and North Korea – one country it’s sworn enemy and the other one with which it had no relations at all. The current Iranian government is deplorable but it’s crimes born of religious intolerance are all against its own people. In international affairs Iran is much more sinned against than sinning. Saudi Arabia oppresses its Shia population so fears Iran will use them to make trouble. There is no evidence it has done so. Israel hates Iran because it supports the Hezbollah guerrillas, the only force to stand up to the Israelis as they continue stealing Arab land. The US supports Israel and Saudi Arabia for its own reasons. Saudi Arabia is more internally oppressive than Iran and Israel is the only expansionary state in the region and has developed a nuclear arsenal with no-one objecting. Which is the rogue state?

  13. Hi Mike,

    What did you make of the First Minister saying he would welcome nuclear weapons in Wales?

  14. I largely concur with Mike (& possibly JWR) on the cost and requirement for a new fleet of 4 submarines. The Vanguards do not have to be constantly at sea. We are not in America’s position under the NPT of effectively providing a global nuclear deterrent umbrella. Unless there is a credible threat of a first strike on Faslane by some putative enemy why do we need 4 subs to guarantee continuous at sea deterrence? We can maintain our nuclear ‘status’ (whatever that implies) without keeping the delivery systems on a coldwar style hairpoint readiness, which in the era of the 3 minute warning was necessary for credible deterrence, but which are far harder to justify today. In the world we live in I would rather us investing in maintaining the capacity of the regular army than mucking around with vastly expensive (and possibly redundant before completion) aircraft carriers and submarines.

  15. Under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the UK signed in 1970, we agreed to enter into negotiations aimed at the total elimination of nuclear weapons – in exchange for non-nuclear armed states agreeing not to develop nuclear weapons, 33 years later, and the UK has never enter into any such negotiations, despite draft treaties being presented to the UN.
    Instead, the UK argues that we need nuclear weapons for our safety – which is an argument that every other state can also use. If nuclear deterence “works”, then it should work for everyone, and we should view every country that develops nuclear weapons as making the world a little bit safer.
    On the other hand, we could be like Germany, Spain, Sweden, and the rest of the 188 countries in the world who survive without nuclear weapons …

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy