“Our own independent nuclear deterrent… has helped to keep the peace for more than forty years.” – Margaret Thatcher, 1983
“Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout.” – Insane mutant, Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Philip Hammond and his spads inspect the missiles at Faslane
When I was a teenager, in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t a question of if the world would be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust – it was when.
After forty years of teeth-bared, nuclear-armed confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, it felt like a miracle that we were still walking the tightrope and hadn’t fallen off. When hardened Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan was elected US President in 1980, and immediately started referring to the Soviets as “the evil empire”, it felt like we were starting to wobble on that tightrope very alarmingly.
Popular culture reflected our anxieties, warping our expectations and filling us with apocalyptic paranoia. We might have thought the post-nuclear wasteland replete with adventure after movies like Damnation Alley or Mad Max 2, but we were soon disabused of that notion with the horrific realism (and even that was toned down somewhat) of TV movies such as The Day After and Threads, both of which gave the teenage me nightmares for weeks. Even Raymond Briggs, author/artist of cuddly Christmas favourite The Snowman, got in on the act with cartoon downer When the Wind Blows, which gave kids the opportunity to watch two loveable pensioners die a horrifically protracted death of radiation poisoning.
The music too reflected the sense of inevitable impending doom. When the Wind Blows boasted a doomy score by Pink Floyd arch-miserablist Roger Waters, whose 1983 Floyd album The Final Cut ended with a charming depiction of nuclear holocaust, Two Suns in the Sunset (“could be the human race is run”). Liverpool dance pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood followed up gay sex celebration Relax with the doomy Two Tribes, which opened with a mock nuclear attack announcement and whose video featured lookalikes of the US and USSR Presidents fighting to the death in an arena.
Our own Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had swung back into power after a supreme burst of sabre-rattling in the Falkland Islands, in which she used the sledgehammer of the British military to crush the less than effective conscripts of stupidly aggressive Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri. Following that, she became extremely chummy with Reagan, whose idea of humour was the unintentionally recorded gag, “we begin bombing in five minutes”, which put the Soviet army on a high alert status. We became paranoid that every misinterpreted radar shadow of a flock of geese would spark off a retaliatory ICBM strike. It was only a matter of time.
But by some miracle, it didn’t happen. Against all expectations, President Reagan sat down with new, moderate Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and negotiated the climbdown from the Cold War that would culminate in the collapse of the totalitarian USSR in 1991. For ten years, we lived free from apocalyptic paranoia – until September 11 2001 brought the golden opportunity of a new threat, different in nature but similarly all-pervading. Guns blazing, George W Bush declared “war on terror”, ignoring the fact that, traditionally, wars are fought between two states, not one state and a mobile group of fanatics with no national allegiance.
Bush’s problem was that, like the First World War generals whose tactic was to charge machine gun emplacements with cavalry, he was trying to fight the war before the one he was actually fighting. Al Qaeda are not “the Reds”, with a conveniently available selection of cities to rain destruction on; they’re a group of fanatical opportunists most of whose weapons consist of vests with TNT sewn into them. Faced with this, “let’s bomb the bastards” makes absolutely no tactical sense, because they’re in the middle of large populations of otherwise innocent people in otherwise innocent states.
And the reason I bring all this up now is that, in the face of all sanity, military strategy and economic good sense, Conservative Defence Minister Philip Hammond is currently making the same mistake. On Monday, before visiting nuclear submarine base Faslane in Scotland, and in direct contradiction of his party’s Coalition Agreement with the Lib Dems, he unilaterally announced the first steps towards purchasing a like for like replacement for Britain’s Cold War missile system, Trident.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident / that all men may be cremated equal” – Vern Partlow, Old Man Atom
This issue has been a political hot potato for some time, and to their credit (whatever their other failings), the Lib Dems seem to be the only English political party who can see this for the massive waste of money and strategic nonsense that it is. Alex Salmond’s SNP, faced with the inconvenience and moral problems of hosting the submarines, has a similar viewpoint. Both make perfect sense – in today’s world, Trident is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Let’s look at the destructive potential of the system. Here comes the maths bit…
Britain has four Vanguard class submarines, each capable of launching 16 Trident II D-5 missiles, each of which can be tipped with up to 8 W76 warheads, with an explosive yield of 100 kilotons (1 kiloton = 1000 tons) each. That’s a total destructive force equivalent to 51200 kilotons of conventional explosives. To put that into perspective, the bomb that annihilated the city of Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield of 16 kilotons. Just one of the multiple warheads carried by each Trident missile is more than six times as destructive as that. Altogether, Britain’s nuclear capability is equivalent to 3200 Hiroshimas.
Now, it is fair to say that the 2010 Strategic Spending Review has limited that substantially, halving the number of missiles each submarine will carry to eight, and limiting the number of warheads carried to a total of 40. That has massively reduced the destructive potential available at any one time to a mere 250 Hiroshimas. But don’t get too relieved – we’re keeping a (reduced) total of 120 warheads actually available; that’s 750 Hiroshimas. And we could strap them onto the missiles and load those missiles at any time – I doubt we’d tell anyone.
This massively excessive destructive potential sort of made sense as a ‘deterrent’ at the height of the Cold War, with two ideologically opposed blocs, armed to the teeth with nukes, growling at each other. The theory was that nobody would launch a first strike for fear of facing equal retaliation; you can’t win a war if the entirety of civilisation is destroyed (which ignored the probability that even if only one side launched its nukes it would effectively devastate the planet). This strategy was known as Mutually Assured Destruction, with the all too appropriate acronym MAD.
But, militarily speaking, what threats do we face now? Learning lessons from Germany, most international rivals now know that the way to best your rivals is not to conquer them but to buy them. Ignoring the small clutch of nations with a limited nuclear capability (North Korea, Israel, potentially Iran) that can’t hold a candle to the West’s nuclear arsenal, the only states currently posing a similar threat to the Soviet Union are China and Russia. Both are too gripped in their own newfound love of capitalism to risk nuclear war; China in particular, by dint of holding the debts for most of the West, doesn’t even need to. All it needs to do is send round the repo men.
So we’re left with the threat that Western governments have built up, propaganda-wise as the baddies since the demise of the USSR – terror. And more specifically, terrorists. Government press releases and hysterical news media bombard us daily with nightmare scenarios of suitcase bombs, suicide vests and the ever-looming shadow of the Twin Towers airliner attacks.
Against that, what on Earth is the point of launching a multiple warhead intercontinental ballistic missile? Even if the so-far-unproven spectre of small nations (like Iraq) developing “weapons of mass destruction” comes true, those weapons will be like peashooters against rockets compared to even conventional Western forces. A massive nuclear strike – against any of our current enemies and likely any we may face in future – makes precisely zero strategic sense.
“It’s the last thing they’ll be expecting – a daylight charge over the minefield.” – Arnold J Rimmer, Red Dwarf
And yet, at the “leaders’ debates” just before the 2010 General Election, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron emphatically insisted that Trident must be replaced with a similar/identical system to maintain Britain’s defences. Why? It made no sense then, and makes even less now, with the repeated mantra that “there’s no money left”. With the massive slashing in public spending on society’s sick and vulnerable, how on earth can anyone justify spending billions on a massive military white elephant?
Brown then, and Cameron now, made no sense from a military perspective in retaining such phenomenal destructive power. With Cameron, you can at least understand the perspective of trying desperately to shore up the illusion that Britain somehow retains the weight it once had as an international power – after all, the very nature of Conservatism is to cling to the past and try to reverse progress. Brown’s Labour Party had no such excuse, and neither does Miliband, who’s been conspicuously quiet on the subject.
However, I’d guess that neither wishes to upset the American defence industry, from whom Trident and any potential replacement would be bought and maintained. Estimates of the overall cost (including new submarines, new missiles, and new or refurbished warheads, plus ongoing maintenance) vary wildly from £25 billion (2006/7 government figures) to £97 billion (2009 Greenpeace estimate). Still, that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the US annual defence budget of $1.4 trillion, most of which I’m pretty sure is spent at home. Put simply, the US defence industry is not desperate for the billions we’d give them, whatever politicians might think. The people of the United Kingdom, on the other hand, are – certainly if George Osborne is to be believed.
To be fair to the pro- camp, all those billions would not be spent in one great lump, whatever the opposition might say or imply. The costs cover a thirty year period; however, it’s still estimated at £1.5 billion to £2 billion per year. That’s a pretty massive sum to be wasting on a weapons system that, even if it made strategic sense as a deterrent, could never actually be used. Particularly when Osborne insists that £10 billion needs to be slashed from the benefit budget because the nation can’t afford it.
And to be fair to the anti- camp, not replacing Trident with an identical system is not the same as complete unilateral disarmament (as espoused in Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour manifesto aka “the longest suicide note in history”). Other nuclear weapons are available. Ideally, ones with slightly more precision than Trident, whose smallest possible effect is the destruction of an entire city. I’d argue that we probably do need nuclear weapons. Just not blunt instruments. Iran is not going to gain the nuclear capability of the USSR overnight; it took them decades to reach that level. If that seriously looks like a threat, we could reconsider. But arming ourselves to the teeth just in case is ridiculous.
“It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell you. What more can I say?” – Sir Humphrey Appleby
“Only that it costs £15 billion and we don’t need it.” – Jim Hacker
“Well, you could say that about anything at Harrods.” – Sir Humphrey Appleby
Yes Prime Minister
In the end, spending billions of pounds on a weapons system that no longer makes strategic sense, at a time when, if its proponents are to be believed, we are so desperately short of money that austerity is the only possible solution, is utterly, completely bonkers. Why should other countries seeking to acquire nuclear capability listen to us taking the moral high ground when we can’t give up our own Cold War toys? And regardless of your party allegiance, can you honestly say that a very expensive way of waving your willy around to look important matters more than caring for the vulnerable in your society?
If, like me, you’re old enough to remember the all-pervading fear and certainty of destruction in those last days of the Cold War, it should be enough to cure you of any nostalgic tendencies about it. But the Conservatives love the past, and are intent on hurtling us back there, convinced that it was always a halcyon Golden Age better than the one we have now. Buying another dose of Mutually Assured Destruction may satisfy Philip Hammond’s nostalgic urges, but to the rest of us, it’s just MAD.