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Why the Trident debate is (largely) one about symbolism

Mark Urban | 14:53 UK time, Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Back in the late 80s at an Admiralty Board lunch, I received a memorable lesson in the symbolic importance of the Trident missiles system.

I was Defence Correspondent for The Independent at that time, as the admirals - sat resplendent in uniform beneath sumptuous paintings of fighting sail - were stunned into shocked silence by Peter Snow, Newsnight's then presenter and diplomatic editor.

"Trident!", he began, "phallic symbol? Yes? No?"

The First Sea Lord and others looked at Snowy in consternation - it was like one of those Bateman cartoons of a terrible social faux pas. I couldn't stop myself giggling, as Newsnight's dreadnought ploughed on, "huge, towering, virility symbol? Yes? No? What?"

It was only once Peter had thrown them a line by moving away from strictly phallic imagery that the naval chiefs started to form an answer, and the moment passed.

This week's focus on Trident in the foreign affairs debates (of wannabee foreign secretaries on Monday and party leaders tomorrow) has reminded me of Snowy's point: that the debate about Britain's nuclear weapons is (largely) one about symbolism.

There seems to be a received wisdom among many in the Westminister bubble that the Lib Dem's rejection of a 'like for like' replacement of Trident marks them out as hopelessly naive or weak.

Yet I remember not long before the 2006 decision in principle to replace Trident with a similar submarine launched ballistic missile system, one senior admiral telling me that a combination of a couple of extra hunter killer submarines with nuclear armed cruise missiles might actually be a better option for the Royal Navy.

At that point the senior service did not dare hope for a like for like replacement (because of its huge cost) and could see the advantages of having a flexible fleet of 8-10 hunter killers, any of which might be nuclear armed.

But Tony Blair and Gordon Brown opted to replace Trident with the speed and secrecy that have become customary in Britain's nuclear decision making.

Today's comments in the Times by some senior former army officers underline that there is a perfectly respectable defence debate to be had that replacing Trident with a similar system is too expensive and represents overkill shows that Nick Clegg and his party cannot be accused of irresponsibility.

Trident was chosen by a Cabinet committee in 1979 because it satisfied the so-called 'Moscow Criterion', a British government requirement that the national nuclear weapons' system be able to destroy the Soviet Union's capital, despite its anti-missile defences. How relevant is the Moscow Criterion today?

Perhaps the whole problem with cruise missiles tucked away in hunter killer submarines or air launched missiles in bunkers at RAF bases is that they do not constitute that kind of overt national virility symbol so gloriously described by Peter Snow.

The debate is worth having - and at least Trident provides ones area where the electorate is being offered a clear choice.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    It's amazing that the centre-piece of Britain's defence is not part of the strategic review. There shouldn't need to be a political debate for it to be included. Just common sense makes it an imperative.

  • Comment number 2.

    CLOSE - BUT NO CIGAR

  • Comment number 3.

    CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR (!)

    I have been posting for some time about the game of Globopoly, where only officers of the top war-mongering nations may play. Those who have a nucular capability, back at home, gain an enhanced 'die-roll'; they are 'respected.

    The pathetic ciphers who rise to PM, and to ministerial positions in Westminster, will not lightly give up their status at the Globopoly table. Hence Trident is renewed - at any cost.

  • Comment number 4.

    if peter snow story 'is to be believed' telling the argies the paras were going to attack goose green in a few hours was also a demonstration of his foot in mouth style?

    the basic laws of risk management facing an unknown situation is to have something of everything ie a policy of diversification. 8-10 hunter killers sounds a better risk management strategy than trident.

  • Comment number 5.

    It goes without saying that what is lacking in our defence capability is the means to prevent a devastating attack from a state sponsored or covertly assisted terrorist organisation. The Trident 'deterrent' is ineffective in providing this capability. This weapon is equally ineffective and essentially useless against the current threats facing the country and the 'low tech' insurgents and terrorists in particular that our army, navy, and air force are fighting.

    Post Cold War, what is the point of maintaining such an expensive and potentially obsolete system? Apart from possibly 'deterring' a theoretical future attack from those countries which are currently busily acquiring or upgrading their own nuclear weapon systems, there seems little purpose or utility in keeping Trident.

    A more flexible and adaptable replacement weapons system is needed perhaps on the lines suggested by Mark Urban; more submarines with cruise missiles which can be nuclear armed if needed. A missile defence system for the country - or indeed the continent - also seems to have more relevance now. In any case ther should be a review after the election by defence experts before coming to a final decision.

    Against our current threats it seems that our already existing equally 'low tech' but intelligence lead capability needs to be maintained and improved as our only real line of defence.

  • Comment number 6.

    It's a complete myth that having Nuclear weapons gives us any influence or credibility on the international stage. Look at Japan, or Germany they have as much political bargaining power as the UK (Germany more so in Europe) and neither has nuclear weapons. In fact by renewing Trident we are probably losing credibility amongst Americans who are leading the way on disarmament

    People often say we will lose our permanent seat on the Security Council, this isn't true. Many of the permanent members had their seats before they had they nukes. Also each member can veto anything any other member says so our seat is safe.


    Anyone who does the maths will see that £100bn on Trident and a £35bn hole in the defence procurement budget don't add up. What do we want? A symbolic "phallic" and relic of the cold war? Or troops on the front line with proper equipment.

  • Comment number 7.

    Mark

    I would like to hear of a cruise missile that has 8000+ km range , which also does not need third nation overfly rights and which it not vulnerable to being shot down ;)

    Russia , France , China and the USA are all upgrading or have recently upgraded their ICBMs , we're only replacing our subs , I can not see why this is even a issue, its clearly not in other countries.

    Again, some non NPT treaty countries are developing new launch and delivery systems with ever greater ranges (one boasts of a 16,000km range with a light load) for their strategic nuclear forces.

    Roll on SDI , at least then all these delivery systems become non-viable and pointless, though would that mean more wars are actually fought between major powers ? As there would be no deterrence.

    UK plans -
    Costs to replace our subs are estimated at £20 billion (2007 prices) by the NAO.

    It can only be seen as a £100 billion (£3 billion a year) cost over the next 35 years if you compare it to not having a deterrent force at all.

    Ex-Army Chiefs Comments -
    I can understand their need for more resources , but stripping our effective nuclear deterrent would put them and us at home in even more danger in the coming years, in my view.

  • Comment number 8.

    Steve-London - you seem to be totally missing the point of Trident and why it existed and why it is no longer relevant. Trident exists as a deterrent under the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The whole point of a SLBM being that even if an enemy managed to sneak-in a first strike and wipe-out the entire country, our deterrent force could, from anywhere in the world, retaliate in-kind. This worked during the Cold War because even the most hard-line communists in the USSR had no interest in seeing their country destroyed. The current successors to the old Cold War belligerents have even less desire to see total nuclear war, hence why the Americans (and slightly less publicly the Russians) are moving towards decommissioning their strategic nuclear forces.

    Looking at the nuclear threat present today and that which is developing for the future there are broadly two groups who are concerning - rogue states such as North Korea and Iran and terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda. The issue with both of these threats is that the latter, and to an extent the former, do not adhere to the MAD doctrine - the terrorists in question are essentially stateless, so have nothing to loose from a retaliatory action of the scale of an MIRV-equipped SLBM. The rogue states would be vulnerable to a nuclear strike but their leadership is sufficiently unstable that relying on MAD to keep them in-check is unrealistic (and why so much is being done now to address the issue of their nuclear armament). It's also arguable whether any of the Cold Ward nuclear powers have the stomach for the huge civilian casualties that even a limited nuclear action would produce.

    In conclusion, a deterrent adhering to the MAD doctrine is no longer relevant to the world of today. The significant cost of maintaining such could be far better used bolstering the areas of the armed forces which are relevant and in some cases sorely lacking (we have *no* littoral navy any longer). There is possibly an argument for maintaining a tactical nuclear capability, probably air-launched rather than submarine launched, but the SLBM is really an obsolete concept.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.


    the point about Trident or for that matter any other ballistic missile system is its flexibility, able to provide a Strategic or sub- strategic option.
    Cruise-missile systems lack the range and are very slow , so are vulnerable to a good airdefence network
    the "Moscow Criterion" or perhaps "Bejing Criterion" is still a valid benchmark to consider Nuclear delivery systems.
    The last 30 years have shown that it's impossible to predict the future world!
    In 20 or even 10 years, The Uk maybe in a "Cold War" situation with either or both of these Powers.
    Another point is that Royal Navy is armed with Tomahawk C Conventionally-Armed cruise-missiles, how would a enemy be able to distinguish between a HE or Nuclear cruise-missile strike and may decide to "Launch on Warning".
    Finally while the other First Grade Nuclear Powers continue with ICBM/SLBM systems, Britain would be crazy to adopt a less effective missile weapon.

  • Comment number 11.

    The UK is not going to become involved in a nuclear exchange independently of NATO or the EU. As a weapon of first strike, Trident will not be used and, as a response weapon, it is next to useless in the context of the modern world situation.

    It follows that spending 100,000 million of taxpayer money on a replacement is an economic judgment of the most profligate and irresponsible kind. The phallic symbolism, however, is appropriate to the people who made this decision and all credit to Clegg for kicking against them.

  • Comment number 12.

    CBU (interesting nickname btw) - Trident may be flexible but what do you think the reaction from Moscow/Beijing would be when they see Trident's popping out of sea? I'm sure they'll be placated by a quick phone call from number 10 assuring them that the missiles currently climbing into the stratosphere are "purely for sub-strategic use, you understand"... There's a reason why the US swiftly dropped the idea of the Trident-based but non-nuclear 'Prompt Global Strike'.

    Possibly we're a little too quick to forget the lessons learned from the Cold War and it's protagonists, but the reality is these systems were never intended to be used as weapons - they were deterrents. To now argue that we should be keeping them as an actual deliverable weapon is to forget half a century of Cold War history.

  • Comment number 13.

    sorry, Mark if I offended and to the moderator my apologies but it was HUMOUR and it was a script from Dr Strangelove, one of the most famous anti-war films by Stanly Kubrick, I don't think he would have aplogised though...

  • Comment number 14.

    I 'AGREE' WITH STEVIE (#13)

    I invite anyone who thinks the functionality as (some sort of) defence, that Trident purports to be, OUTWEIGHS its 'attraction' AS A PRIMARY TARGET FOR INCOMING NUKES, to lay out, strike by strike, an exchange with Johnnie Foreigner. Do we 'win'?

    Of course, if MAD is your BAG (Bloody Appalling Gambit) then I have no argument, and will vaporise gladly.

    Yo stevie! A few lines from Tom Lehrer called for here?

  • Comment number 15.

    PERMISSION TO SCREAM?

    Output is up by 0.2% Yeah right.

    HOW WIDE IS THE ERROR BAND? I keep asking, why doesn't Newsnight?

  • Comment number 16.

    Tom Lehrer yesssss, now you're talkin'

  • Comment number 17.

    The fact that we couldn't get any kind of air power over the Falklands when needed, except an ancient Vulcan backed up by 32 Victor tankers flying shittle refueling missions (at great risk to the crews) shows the 'hole' in our defence thinking. (Oh and by the way our NATO partner the US declined us the use of any kind of resource, including the B52 which could have done the job easily, so don't rely on the cousins!)
    We need to be able to project power anywhere in the world, either conventional or nuclear. This would be best served by a diverse fleet of Hunter Killer subs, plus a strategic bomber fleet, plus a credible carrier fleet. All of which can be armed with long range cruise missiles of both types. We will never fire a Trident, we would never fire its replacement. It would be a waste of time and money.. And its cost would deny us the pragmatic power we need.

  • Comment number 18.

  • Comment number 19.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 20.

    You are right and i enjoy to reading your comment

    "Steve-London - you seem to be totally missing the point of Trident and why it existed and why it is no longer relevant. Trident exists as a deterrent under the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The whole point of a SLBM being that even if an enemy managed to sneak-in a first strike and wipe-out the entire country, our deterrent force could, from anywhere in the world, retaliate in-kind. This worked during the Cold War because even the most hard-line communists in the USSR had no interest in seeing their country destroyed. The current successors to the old Cold War belligerents have even less desire to see total nuclear war, hence why the Americans (and slightly less publicly the Russians) are moving towards decommissioning their strategic nuclear forces.Looking at the nuclear threat present today and that which is developing for the future there are broadly two groups who are concerning - rogue states such as North Korea and Iran and terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda. The issue with both of these threats is that the latter, and to an extent the former, do not adhere to the MAD doctrine - the terrorists in question are essentially stateless, so have nothing to loose from a retaliatory action of the scale of an MIRV-equipped SLBM. The rogue states would be vulnerable to a nuclear strike but their leadership is sufficiently unstable that relying on MAD to keep them in-check is unrealistic (and why so much is being done now to address the issue of their nuclear armament). It's also arguable whether any of the Cold Ward nuclear powers have the stomach for the huge civilian casualties that even a limited nuclear action would produce.In conclusion, a deterrent adhering to the MAD doctrine is no longer relevant to the world of today. The significant cost of maintaining such could be far better used bolstering the areas of the armed forces which are relevant and in some cases sorely lacking (we have *no* littoral navy any longer). There is possibly an argument for maintaining a tactical nuclear capability, probably air-launched rather than submarine launched, but the SLBM is really an obsolete concept."

 

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