Jeremy Corbyn has caused a sensation by declaring that he does not favour the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile programme and, in addition, that if he were Prime Minister, he would not press the button the deploy the missiles. This has caused predictable concern from his shadow cabinet for whom Trident is a vital part of Britain's security. Of course, because Trident (and its predecessor, Polaris), are an effective deterrent that have kept us safe since 1968.
Is this true though? Has Trident kept us safe? At all?
Well first, it is true that since 1968 (a) we've had a nuclear missile system, and it's also true that (b) in that time we have not been invaded by a hostile foreign power. But how safely can we attribute the latter to the former? These may be independent, unconnected facts and to connect them might well be a classic cum hoc ergo propter hoc error. Can anyone point to an episode where our possession of nuclear weapons specifically protected us? A moment where an enemy specifically contemplated attacking us but desisted because of our nuclear missiles? And, conversely, can anyone explain how Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Austria, Australia, New Zealand and Spain managed to escape being attacked in that time, despite having not a single nuclear weapon between them?
The clearest moment when people felt the East and the West were on the brink of nuclear war was the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the last two weeks of October 1962, a terrifying stand-off took place between the US and the USSR in which the world faced the prospect of a devastating nuclear war. Eventually, Kennedy and Khrushchev pulled back from the brink. Perhaps this was an instance of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons? Well possibly - except that let's remember that the whole thing came about because of nuclear weapons. It was the US siting nuclear warheads (Jupiter ballistic missiles) pointing at the USSR in Italy and Turkey that prompted the Soviet Union to retaliate by placing its own R-12 missiles on a base in Cuba. The possession of weapons may have prevented the crisis from turning into war, but they created the crisis in the first place.
In fact, any claim that nuclear weapons kept us safe would have to be at least cancelled out by the clear fact that those same weapons made life much more dangerous.
And this is a bit of theme.
- A year earlier, the phone network that connected NORAD with the various early-warning stations went down. All the lines were routed through a Colorado substation which had overheated and so the lines were shut down. But to Strategic Air Command it looked very much as if a massive surprise attack had taken out the frontline of US defences. All SAC bases were placed on the highest alert and the B-52 bombers, armed with nuclear weapons, were placed on high readiness. Fortunately, a reconnaissance aircraft was able to confirm that the sites were still intact and crisis was averted.
- In January 1968, a B-52 bomber, armed with a nuclear weapon, experienced an onboard fire. Diverting to make an emergency landing at the nearby Thule airbase in Greenland, it failed and crash-landed. It is extremely lucky that despite the fuel detonating this did not trigger the nuclear weapon. Not simply because of the fallout from the explosion but also because Thule was one of the early-warning stations. If the bomb had exploded, it would have sent an immediate signal to NORAD of a nuclear attack on a US base. There would have been no failsafe, because the blast would have destroyed them; the B-52 was off-course, so it would not have shown up as a possible cause. What protected the world for retaliatory action was luck.
- In November 1979, computers at the Pentagon's National Military Command Centre reported terrible news. The Soviet Union had just launched an overwhelming nuclear strike at America's defences. Minutemen missiles were immediately readied to retaliate. Air interceptor forces were deployed. The President's 'doomsday' plane was launched. Until it was discovered that a young air force officer, earlier that morning, had decided to run a training programme on an Air Force computer, not realising that computer was connected to the NORAD mainframe. (Four years later, this becomes an ingredient in the movie War Games...)
- The following year, in June 1980, an operator monitoring the screens suddenly saw them announce first that there were 2 incoming nuclear missiles and then that there were 220 missiles. As usual, airborne command is launched, the bomber pilots are readied with their nuclear payloads, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski is awoken, alerts soar to their highest levels. And then it becomes clear that a 46-cent computer chip has been malfunctioning and is reporting, randomly and intermittently, 0s as 2s.
- In September 1983, it is the Soviet Union's turn to experience computer errors. A Colonel in the Soviet army in one of the bases that make up the 'Oko' early-warning system picks up an alert that a US missile is heading towards the USSR. A few moments later, it reports that there are five. Soviet radar cannot yet verify whether there are real rockets in the air. Fortunately for the world, Colonel Petrov makes an educated guess that this is a computer error (why would America send only five missiles?) and refuses to retaliate.
- In January 1995, the cold war is over. Yet at the Olenegorsk early warning radar station in Murmansk Oblast, the screens register an incoming missile that looks exactly like an incoming Trident missile fired from a US military submarine. In fact it is a Black Brant rocket carrying scientific equipment on behalf of a group of Norwegian and US scientists wanting to study the aurora borealis. To get there it used the same air corridor as the Minuteman III ICBMs, each with its three nuclear warheads, between Dakota and Moscow. Unlike in 1983, the presence of a single rocket does not immediately discredit the report; it is assumed that prior to an all-out attack the US would send up a missile to send out a massive electromagnetic to knock out radar and other detecting equipment. Russia has only ten minutes to make a decision. Forces are placed on a high alert and the Cheget 'command briefcase' is brought to Boris Yeltsin who has to decide whether to authorise a full-scale retaliation. He activates the nuclear keys. Eight minutes into the ten, stations tracking the missile identify its trajectory as taking it away from Russia towards the sea. The forces stand down.
In other words, nuclear weapons have not made us safer; they have placed us at much greater risk.
And what about the future? Well, we don't know what the future will hold. 'In an uncertain world, are we really content to throw away Britain's ultimate insurance policy?' says George Osborne, defending the renewal of Trident. But uncertainty is a terrible defence for certain action. It says: we don't know what will happen, so we know what we must do. Remember, this is not about abandoning weapons we already have; Trident will come to end of its life in 2028. But such is the procurement and turnaround time that If we want Trident (or something Tridentish), we have to judge the state of the world in the 2050s and decide on our defence systems now - at the cost of $100bn.*
This is an uncertain world, of course. Who remembers the lovely certainties of the Cold War? At least you knew who the enemy was. For a Cold War world, where the enemy sits in an identifiable city, missiles make some sense. But in this new world we are less at threat from states than from individual terrorists and non-territorial terrorist groups.
Against whom, Trident is 100% useless. When al-Qaeda attack us, who do we bomb? If ISIL were to launch an assault on one of our cities, where would we send the missiles? On 9/11 or 7/7 or on the Moscow Metro or at Glasgow Airport or in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho or on the streets of Woolwich or at the Jewish Museum in Belgium or at the offices of Charlie Hebdo the nuclear deterrent was, obviously, no deterrent at all. When Trident was commissioned in 1980 to be deployed in 1994, Margaret Thatcher (who signed the order) no doubt felt that the future was uncertain but what she did know is that our main threat between 1994 and 2028 would come from the Soviet Union. Trident is already an absurd unusable anachronism.
I'm not a pacifist. I think we need defences and sometimes you have to fight a war. But it seems incredible to be running down our conventional forces who are the ones who, let's not forget, have fought every war we've ever fought, in favour of a weapon that we are unlikely ever to use. We need to be maintaining our conventional forces, not running them down.
So let's not renew Trident. It is a dangerous waste of money.
* This is CND's figure which covers the whole lifespan of the weapons. The Ministry of Defence says it will cost somewhere between £17.5bn and £23.4bn, though that doesn't cover overspend, running costs, maintenance and upgrades, protection and end-of-life decommissioning and even if we do only count procurement, frankly, no one in the world believes it will only cost £23.4bn.