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Yes nucular, no Tridentular

Supporters of nuclear weapons systems like Trident generally justify the cash by saying things like ‘dangerous world, Kim Jong Il and Ahmadinejad very bad men, we can’t just disarm’. Or, more cynically, ‘place on world table, we can’t just disarm’.

I’m not totally sold on this argument – after all, the US will continue to have nuclear weapons for as long as it has a military-industrial complex [*] – and anyone who we can’t defeat with our conventional forces is realistically also going to be a strategic threat to the Yanks, no matter how annoyed they might be with our lack of military spending. And ‘place on world table’ is awesome for a few hundred diplomats and politicians whilst making c.sod all difference to anyone else.

But let’s say it’s true: we need nuclear weapons to deal with global security threats and enhance our prestige. Fine – but I don’t think I’ve seen any coherent argument for why we need to spend £60-80bn on Trident, rather than achieving all the ‘potential for revenge’ and ‘woo, we’re a nucular state’ through a lower-tech programme like India’s – which would cost somewhere between 10% and 25% as much.

That would still give us ballistic and cruise missiles capable of obliterating anyone except for the US and Russia – who we wouldn’t be able to obliterate with Trident either, even if we wanted to (not least because most operational aspects of Trident are controlled by the US). Which ought to be enough, oughtn’t it?

Anything I’m missing…?

[*] which we don’t to quite the same extent.

  1. July 15, 2009 at 8:30 am | #1

    You've not missed anything important, except maybe

    1. Why would we want to obliterate the US or Russia or even have the means to do so? If we got to that stage we'd be dead about ten times over already.

    2. The rhetorical question, "Do you feel less safe when you are abroad on holiday in a non-nuclear country like [insert names of nearly any country] or do you feel safer when you are in [the UK, USA, France, Russia, China, North Korea, Israel, India, Pakistan etc]?"

    3. As shit as the [Iranian, Pakistani, North Korean] regimes might be, would you seriously fire off a few nukes to kill hundreds of thousands of their citizens, and if so under which circumstances* and why?

    * In hindsight, I think the US did the right thing in flattening Hiroshima, I would have done the same and never lost a night's sleep over it. But Nagasaki was taking the piss.

  2. July 15, 2009 at 9:05 am | #2

    No, you're missing the point: I'm not even arguing for nuclear weapons – I'm asking someone who believes nuclear weapons are essential to explain why we need Trident…

  3. ajay
    July 15, 2009 at 8:09 pm | #3

    It is the nuclear weapon that Harrods would sell you!

  4. July 15, 2009 at 9:16 pm | #4

    Good call. "To make the British believe that Britain is defended", indeed.

  5. EP
    July 16, 2009 at 3:46 am | #5

    In defence of Trident, if we are going to have a nuclear deterrent at all it needs to have a guaranteed second strike capability anywhere in the world. Anything less than this is largely pointless. If we need nuclear weapons, (a valid political debate involving Britain's role in the world) their sole role can be as the ultimate insurance policy. ie. if another state attacks the UK with WMD there is an assurance that the UK will be able to respond with nuclear weapons.

    Britain is too small for land based missiles, and a viable airborne detterent (ie. bombers), would I suspect be more expensive than Trident to operate, and less effective.

    India's nuclear programme is currently regional in scope, its potential targets are Pakistan and at a stretch China. Plus as far as I remember (although I haven't checked recently) Pakistan's missiles can't cover the whole of India, which is much larger than Britain. As such, land based nuclear weapons fulfill a viable element of their nuclear forces.

    It may be the case that a cheaper alternative to Trident is out there. However, the minimum specifications need to be guaranteed second strike capability. I doubt that this can be acquired for less than Trident costs. As it is France spends far more on a less capable albeit completely independent nuclear deterrent. The common pool of missiles shared by the UK and USA makes Trident comparatively cheaper to run in terms of maintenance costs. Potentially, there could be an argument for cheaper non-nuclear submarines, although these traditionally haven't been as quiet as nuclear subs, or possibly

  6. ajay
    July 16, 2009 at 8:22 pm | #6

    Britain is too small for land based missiles


  7. Falco
    July 16, 2009 at 8:43 pm | #7

    "Britain is too small for land based missiles


    Because it's very difficult to fire back if you and all your equipment are molten slag.

    It's very unlikely that we would be targeted by anyone capable of doing this but that's the argument.

  8. July 16, 2009 at 8:51 pm | #8

    The first paragraph of Falco's response is most entertaining if you read it out in a Ross Kemp accent.

  9. ajay
    July 17, 2009 at 9:26 pm | #9

    Falco, I don't think you quite understand the maths involved. Are you suggesting that Britain is small enough that an attacker could simply blanket the country with nuclear weapons and thus be sure of destroying anything in a silo, wherever it was? Because that's not true. Silos are armoured. They need a very high amount of overpressure to destroy them – 2000 psi, compared to less than 10 psi overpressure to destroy pretty much any other target.

    And the overall size of the country is irrelevant to the survivability of the missiles: even in great big countries like the US and Russia, the other side knows pretty much where the silos are. (Minot AFB is not a secret location, and the silos are visible from space). They're survivable because they're small hard targets, so you have to hit them very accurately with a very big bomb. (A 500 kt warhead would have to be less than a kilometre away to generate that sort of overpressure. )

    I have yet to be convinced that (say) a few Minutemen in silos in the Highlands would be much more vulnerable to counterforce than a few Minutemen in silos in North Dakota, or for that matter a few D5s on a V-boat in the North Atlantic.

  10. ajay
    July 17, 2009 at 9:27 pm | #10

    Actually, scratch the last point: silos are more vulnerable than sub-launched missiles. But a silo in Britain isn't more vulnerable than one anywhere else. My main point is: the overall size of the country is irrelevant to the land-based argument.

  11. Matthew
    July 20, 2009 at 4:45 am | #11

    And how many countries have the capabilty?

    "In defence of Trident, if we are going to have a nuclear deterrent at all it needs to have a guaranteed second strike capability anywhere in the world. Anything less than this is largely pointless."

    This seems to be arguing that we need a guaranteed second strike capability against the United States and Russia, one of which Trident doesn't provide. I suppose other countries might improve their capability in time, but couldn't we then buy a Trident 5, or whatever is out by then? Or perhaps one needs to keep upgrading it to be allowed to upgrade it.

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