George Osborne, CND Hero
July 30, 2010
Anti-Trident campaigners should today be lauding George Osborne, who has knocked back Liam Fox’s claim that the capital costs for the replacement of Trident would be met from outwith the defence budget. This makes it much more likely that Trident will not be replaced at all – Fox knows that in order to find the £20billion of capex a replacement would require, he’d face a very public drubbing from generals who have previously questioned the system’s usefulness in maintaining our security and fulfilling the operational requirements of current and future conflicts.
The reasoning behind this is very simple. Trident is a system intended to provide an unpredictable and undetectable launch platform for sophisticated multi-warhead ICBMs capable of overwhelming conventional missile defence systems surrounding a major city or substantial military installation. It was developed in response to an enemy with a global strike capability and potentially overwhelming conventional forces. Such an enemy no longer exists – the only nation that currently falls into this category is the United States, and unless there’s a (very) hidden undercurrent of anti-Americanism in the pro-nukes camp, the USA doesn’t count as a reason to retain Trident.
Let’s consider any potential future conflicts. The key consideration is the development of a global strike capability by a potentially hostile power – the only obvious player here is China. China, while being somewhat belligerent in its immediate neighbourhood in response to historical territorial disputes, has not ventured to expand its sphere of influence and its global capabilities much beyond its immediate naval boundaries. It has not sought to secure military bases in the Western hemisphere at all – its main activities outside its borders are almost exclusively focused on the peaceful aquisition of economic assets, although this is no reason to believe that there is no potential for proxy conflict over resources in, say, Africa as a consequence of this acquisition drive.
However, in order to constitute a threat, China would need its current source of economic growth to be something other than exporting goods to the West. As it converts to a consumption-based economy, this may yet become the case – but even if it achieves this, it merely heightens the possibility of proxy resource wars rather than global conflict. I would therefore say that China does not constitute a reason to retain Trident.
The outstanding potential enemies is therefore reduced to those in possession of potentially overwhelming conventional forces – here I interpret ‘overwhelming’ as ‘Would as a minimum involve five years of nasty to-ing and fro-ing.’ The top of the scale is set by Russia, while the middle ranks are stuffed with middle eastern countries. Russia has reacquired its tendency towards belligerence, and there is the strong possibility of conflict in the rapidly melting Arctic ocean. It has aspirations towards – as a minimum – European leadership, and will undoubtedly use force again to preserve its influence in what it regards as its back yard.
However, Russia has lost its global strike capability, and outside its backyard is less belligerent than playground bully. It seeks the approval of its peers, and appears to recognise the importance of economic factors over hard power in achieving this. Binding Russia further into the European economy will substantially reduce the chances of Russian tanks sweeping over the plains of eastern Europe. Economic ties will deter agression far more than Trident ever could.
It’s the Middle Eastern states that present the most interesting challenge, and the greatest potential for a conflict in which we’d actually use nukes. This is because of their recently-acquired ability to use terrorism as a proxy for a global strike capability. In the event of a Middle Eastern state knowingly releasing a biological agent in London, say, the necessity of conflict would be unavoidable. Furthermore, conflict would be necessarily punitive in nature – the public clamour at the actions of a hostile state in killing hundreds of thousands of its citizens would require it.
Against a sufficiently large state, a conventional response would not be sufficiently punitive, and there would be a clamour to use nuclear weapons – a clamour it may be difficult to resist. Using Trident would result in the cities of that state being reduced to a smouldering radioactive wasteland, as well as worldwide condemnation.
There is another way. Replacing Trident with nuclear-tipped ‘smart’ missiles like the ridiculously bombastically named StormShadow system would allow us to overcome significant conventional forces with the minimum of losses to our side, providing a significant deterrent to those regimes most likely to actually launch an attack on our shores. The strongest objection against this proposal is that it’s easier to shoot down missiles like the StormShadow than Trident’s ICBMs – but this rather assumes that our opponents have effective missile defences. I invite you to compare our guided missile capabilities against our potential foes.
In summary, there is no short to medium term prospect of conflict with a power sufficient to require Trident as a deterrent – but there is a short to medium term prospect of conflict with powers we can deter with cheaper methods. The generals knows this, which is why Trident is unlikely to survive any future review of defence spending in its current form. Thank you, George Osborne!