16 August 2021

Why the nuclear deterrent is still crucial to our security

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“Labour’s support for the UK’s nuclear deterrent is non-negotiable. The matter is settled.” These were the words of John Healey, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in February. He also said that Labour’s commitment to Nato (which as a backbencher in 2012 Jeremy Corbyn had argued should be disbanded) was unshakeable.

This is a relief to me, as a customary (if not invariable) Labour voter. It’s a generation since the party lost two general elections by a landslide on a programme of unilateral nuclear disarmament. I was then in the perplexing position of being a Labour voter who knew this policy would be a disaster for Nato, national security and relations with literally all our allies. But the argument specifically against Britain’s independent deterrent does periodically get resurrected, on both wings of politics. Michael Portillo, a former defence secretary, has made this case. And so did Eliot Wilson, writing for CapX, last week.

I profoundly disagree. A bipartisan consensus on a political issue is not always right, but on the independent deterrent it is. Let me explain where Wilson goes wrong.

Wilson appears to have no inherent moral objection to nuclear defence, and I agree. As the philosopher Bernard Williams wrote, “the world would be safer if there were not any nuclear weapons … but it does not follow that everyone ought to get rid of nuclear weapon…. The morality of deterrence is legitimately one in which you think principally about steps which make it less likely that the weapons get used…. The moral approach in my mind cannot avoid complex arguments about what the world is actually like.”

The international order is anarchic, lacking a supranational body that exercises sovereignty. Unilateral measures of disarmament by the western democracies will not persuade nations like Russia, China or North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons. They will merely erode a deterrent to aggression by autocratic states, including nuclear blackmail to advance their strategic goals.

Wilson instead makes the case that Britain’s independent Trident capability costs too much and is useless. He says that Trident “costs us about £5 billion a year, or 15% of the defence budget” – and he makes clear that he means the in-service costs.

While projecting in-service costs admittedly depends on a host of assumptions, a more accurate figure is around half of this. If you throw in the costs of the Atomic Weapons Establishment and the Nuclear Warhead Sustainability Programme, and all the costs of basing, decommissions and disposals, you get to no more than around 6 per cent of the defence budget each year. As the defence budget is projected to increase by £6.4 billion between 2020/21 and 2024/25, it’s likely that the in-service costs will then take a smaller proportion of the annual defence budget.

If you’re opposed to nuclear weapons, then this will seem a profligate expense come what may, but in fact Britain gets a good deal by buying American Trident missiles. Our policy is operational independence rather than, as France chooses for its own deterrent, procurement independence. The latter course would be much more expensive.

Contrary to the myths of CND and other unilateral disarmers, operational independence is all you need for a credible independent deterrent (it is completely false that an American-made capability can only be fired with the agreement of the US), and Trident is far from being a costly white elephant. The first generation of the Trident deterrent, ordered by the Thatcher government, came in within the budget and ahead of schedule.

The objection to British nuclear weapons on grounds of cost only arises if you think they have no military utility. But Britain “uses” its independent deterrent every minute of every day. Because a potential aggressor knows that our independent deterrent is permanently and continuously deployed (at least one submarine is always on duty), they know that a nuclear attack would elicit a devastating response in kind.

This isn’t useless at all. Deterrence works. Why, for example, did so depraved a regime as Nazi Germany, knowing no moral constraints, refrain from using chemical weapons on the battlefield? The answer is that Hitler believed he would thereby invite retaliation. Why did Saddam Hussein, having deployed chemical attacks in the Iran-Iraq war, not do the same in the Persian Gulf war of 1991? The answer, almost certainly, is that James Baker, US Secretary of State, had hinted (his warning didn’t need to be spelt out) that a chemical attack against US-led forces would invite a devastating non-conventional response.

I can understand the ethical objection to nuclear deterrence though I think it’s mistaken. What I find baffling is the supposed realist case against deterrence. It seems to me based on a profound misreading of international relations. And fortunately there is no prospect that either main party has any sympathy for it.

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Oliver Kamm is Leader writer and columnist for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.