Saturday, 19 September 2020
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By David Hoghton-Carter, UK Defence Forum Research Associate

The UK's strategic deterrent, Trident, has come in for a lot of flak recently. With budgets tight, there are plenty of rumblings from political circles and the blogosphere alike that it should be first to face the axe. After all, Trident is undeniably a costly programme, and it's difficult to see what benefits we gain from it through the opaque lens of national security.

Here at the UK Defence Forum, we've long taken an interest in this debate, and there are plenty of basic questions to answer. It's right to take account of the views of those who are in principled opposition to Trident, but conventional anti-nuclear arguments can fail to take into account the wide variety of potential weapons that can utilise atomic technology. The prospect of replacing or renewing Trident is itself controversial, and has been discussed at length in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, I'd like to take a take a moment to refute some of the common arguments posed against maintaining the deterrent into the future.

The big one is the notion that Trident will never be used, so there's no point in having it. This argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of having a strategic deterrent. The purpose of Trident is not to pre-emptively nuke Johnny Foreigner back into the Stone Age. The purpose of Trident is to demonstrate that we are quite ready and willing to, as a last resort, defend our country with ultimate force. It is nothing more or less than an extension of diplomacy, the preservation of peace through superior firepower.

As a diplomatic tool, Trident represents excellent value for money. It's mere existence shows that Britain is serious about taking a strong role in securing world peace and stability and means to lead the way as a responsible interventionist power. This sends a powerful message to any States or non-Stated armed groups which intend to use violence to undermine global peace or stability that we can and will retaliate against acts of mass destruction. It also underpins our global position and influence, allowing us to punch above our economic and demographic weight within the UN Security Council and exercise substantial leverage in international security and defence matters.

Though we can be hopeful that we will never again face the kind of risks associated with the Cold War, this does not mean that deterrence is no longer necessary. Certainly, most conventional thinking on nuclear doctrine and strategy focuses upon the scenario of two or more heavily-armed nuclear powers facing off against each-other over issues of ideology, territory and resources. However, the maintenance of a nuclear weapons system, like missile defence, today stems from the need to account for less readily predictable threats.

All this is indicative of a more existential approach to strategy. So, for a responsible state like the UK to maintain a nuclear capability is arguably essential going forward into an uncertain future. Threats from international 'outsiders' (those who explicitly or implicitly refuse to pursue their goals through peaceful or lawful means) remain multitudinous: Iran, North Korea, non-Stated Islamic militancy, even nuclear-armed Pakistan poses serious security and foreign policy challenges. It's clear that Britain rightly intends to pursue an active and vigorous foreign policy of intervening to preserve peace and defend common human values, and having the big stick that is Trident on standby places us in a strong position when dealing with outsider States or groups.

Of course, nuclear disarmament is a laudable goal for the future, but we shouldn't give in to the clearly illogical argument that unilateral disarmament will immediately create a more peaceful world or a safer country. Renewed international arms reduction efforts should be seen for what they are: responsible states recognising their global responsibilities and the wisdom of setting a good example for others to follow.

Unfortunately, the nuclear genie is very much out of the bottle, and we must recognise and plan for the inevitability of further arms proliferation. Though the inherent difficulties of developing nuclear technology mitigates this risk to a great extent, as does the maintenance of proper international monitoring regimes and responsible security procedures, we can't operate under the assumption that we will never be subject to a mass-destruction attack. Barack Obama recently recognised this even as he led the way towards a new era of strategic arms reduction, whilst governments here in the UK are likewise increasing transparency and considering reducing our stockpile of warheads.

On a much more practical level, the Trident programme represents a significant national investment in jobs and skills. Though the economic logic of this can sometimes seem a bit woolly for those without direct experience of the benefits it brings, it's important to recognise that many communities thrive or die on the back of defence technology investment. This isn't just a question of pork bellies and votes; it's a real-life matter of economic prosperity or failure, a story of individual Britons being able to lead productive lives. Plus it's important to be able to maintain high-value skills in technologically-advanced and strategically important industries as we go forward into the uncertain future.

So far, successive British governments have been getting the balance about right, even as political rhetoric from some Parties is poorly thought-out and displays limited awareness of current or future strategic needs. Having the debate is important, but we need to take a measured approach and avoid making any radical changes which might irreversibly limit our ability to respond effectively to future security threats. The challenge now, in this era of austerity, will be to make sure that the current coalition maintains a grounded, rational view of the issues surrounding Trident and doesn't give in to the ideologically-led arguments of Trident's detractors.

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