Debate: Should the Government
replace Trident?


For – Ben Harris

Since the mid 1990s the UK’s nuclear deterrent has come in the form of Trident, a system of four nuclear-equipped submarines whereby at least one is always on patrol ready to respond to an attack. Now over 20 years old, Trident is due to be replaced (at a cost of upwards of £20bn) and the debate surrounding its merits is once again boiling to the surface.

Opposition to replacing Trident is currently being led by the anti-nuclear SNP, who now represent the vast majority of Scotland’s 59 constituencies. However, the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is also fiercely opposed to the renewal of Trident, as are a number of his shadow ministers. One of their main arguments is cost: whichever way one looks at it, the money that could be saved from not replacing Trident could indeed go a long way to improving other public services, reversing defence cuts or even paying down a large chunk of the deficit.

However, the potential benefits of maintaining our nuclear deterrent are far greater than simple monetary gain. In a world where a number of unfriendly states such as Russia and North Korea also possess nuclear weapons it is vital that we protect our country to the fullest by having our own nuclear weapons ready to respond to any attack. At present, a nuclear war with either of these states appears very unlikely but history is filled with nasty surprises – we simply cannot be certain of what might happen several decades down the line.

Another common argument against replacing Trident is that in the post-Cold War world nuclear weapons are strategically irrelevant. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Cold War may be over but many of the threats remain the same, especially now that Western relations with Russia are just as dire than at any point in the last 25 years. The fact that Europe is no longer as strategically vital to US as it was during the Cold War is also another reason why maintaining our nuclear program is as important as ever – we cannot rely on the US nuclear umbrella forever and indeed it would be unreasonable to expect the Americans to foot this bill ad infinitum.

The fact remains that our nuclear weapons give us enormous influence on the world stage. It is no coincidence that the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council (of which the UK is a member) were also the 5 original nuclear weapons states. Our nuclear weapons afford us a place at the top table of international relations, far more so than the EU for example. Some may argue that we are too “small” to have much of an influence anymore but that is not borne out by the facts. Even in the 21st century we can and should use our position to advance the values we hold dear.

Nuclear disarmament is still a commendable goal but it can only be effective if it is multilateral. It is understandable that many are questioning the value of Trident and its successor programme given its costs but ultimately the safety and security of one’s country is priceless. While replacing Trident won’t be the answer to everything it will at least add another layer of protection in an increasingly insecure world.

Against – Paul Nizinskyj

Mao Zedong once described nuclear weapons as a paper tiger; a weapon which appeared threatening but, being made of pulped trees, offered nothing more menacing than a nasty paper cut. Given that the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima had been all but wiped off the map only about a year before this statement was made, it seems astounding a man of Mao’s intelligence could so easily brush off such a threat.

Mao’s almost childlike idealism was one of the reasons his tyranny over China from 1949 to his death in 1976 was so devastating, from the famines of the ironically-named Great Leap Forward to the mania of the Cultural Revolution, though he did eventually change his tune on nuclear weapons.

But was he wrong the first time? The conventional justification for developing and maintaining nuclear weapons was they acted as a deterrent; that, by the reasoning of Mutually Assured Destruction (aptly shortened to MAD), no nuclear nation would dare attack another in any capacity for fear of both states being turned into glass (a non-nuclear nation attacking a nuclear one was presumably so unthinkable it didn’t warrant an acronym). This was supposed to have prevented the Cold War from getting hot for more than 40 years – Khrushchev blinked first during the Cuban Missile Crisis, after all, and there was never a US-Soviet armed conflict.

There are a number of problems with this reasoning, however. Firstly, while there was never an official declaration of war between the two superpowers, the Cold War was anything but. It was a 40-year hot proxy war fought in almost every part of the globe by US and Soviet clients, as well as home troops in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the Arab nations chose to invade Israel in 1967 and 1973 when it was widely suspected Israel had developed its own nuclear weapon. Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 when Britain had had the bomb for 30 years. The idea of a ‘nuclear deterrent’, that the possession of nuclear weapons prevents conventional warfare, has been proven false time and time again.

Possessed of one of the most Vulcan-like logical minds of his generation, Enoch Powell saw this clearer than most, arguing the détente between the USA and the Soviet Union would have progressed in much the same way as if nuclear weapons had never been invented – because both nations were already playing ‘The Great Game’ as though they never existed anyway. Addressing the House of Commons in 1987, he said;

The Prime Minister constantly asserts that the nuclear weapon has kept the peace in Europe for the last 40 years…Let us go back to the middle 1950s or to the end of the 1940s, and let us suppose that nuclear power had never been invented…I assert that in those circumstances there would still not have been a Russian invasion of western Europe.

What has prevented that from happening was not the nuclear hypothesis…but the fact that the Soviet Union knew the consequences of such a move, consequences which would have followed whether or not there were 300,000 American troops stationed in Europe.

The Soviet Union knew that such an action on its part would have led to a third world war—a long war, bitterly fought, a war which in the end the Soviet Union would have been likely to lose on the same basis and in the same way as the corresponding war was lost by Napoleon, by the Emperor Wilhelm and by Adolf Hitler.

Trident was already an anachronism when it was brought into operation in 1994, but Polaris before it had been a gold-plated paper tiger in itself, serving no other purpose than to cement the UK’s role as a pawn in the game of American foreign policy. Furthermore, when the greatest threats to this country’s security come in the form of terrorist groups and warlords rather than organised militarised states, nuclear weapons have never been more redundant. Trident is as unnecessary now as it was then but, with a replacement bill of anything between £15bn and £100bn when the Government is supposed to be slashing public expenditure, it has to be the world’s most expensive bluff.

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