Should the UK renew its nuclear deterrent? In short: no.
Currently, the UK has four submarines capable of carrying nuclear weapons, of which one is constantly on patrol. Submarines carry 40 warheads which can be loaded onto 16 missiles. These Trident missiles have an estimated range of 7,000 miles, meaning that you could park your submarine in the Mediterranean and nuke everywhere on Earth except Australia and Hawaii. Each missile can hold eight warheads, which can then be fired at separate targets within a certain (classified) radius. This is called a Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle, or MIRV. Each warhead has a destructive capability of around 100kt – or eight Hiroshimas, to use the now popular metric. So at any second the UK can incinerate almost any population with the destructive power of 128 Hiroshimas. Turn 40 megacities to ash. Scorch the Earth.
The UK government will shortly decide whether or not to update our nuclear deterrent by replacing the missiles used to deliver nuclear warheads. This will also marginally reduce our number of operationally active nuclear warheads to a paltry 120. Government papers explain the cost of these weapons and give two main arguments for keeping them:
1) Everyone else is doing it
2) Fear of the unknown
You will recognise the first argument from Primary school and dismiss it as childish. This post deals with the second. The papers also include pleasing doublethink such as “Renewing our minimum nuclear deterrent capability is fully consistent with all our international obligations. It is also consistent with our continuing commitment to work towards a safer world in which there is no requirement for nuclear weapons”, as well as chilling threats such as “We are now able to give an assurance that the UK will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties [sic] to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In giving this assurance, we emphasise the need for universal adherence to and compliance with the NPT, and note that this Strategic Defence and Security Review assurance would not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations”. I will argue why I think these positions are incorrect, and that even if I am incorrect, that people deserve a fair choice over this issue.
Scalpels and Sledgehammers
Nuclear weapons are far too imprecise and expensive for effective military use. Tests at Bikini atoll (the swimsuit was named after the first explosion) demonstrated that huge fireballs, whether generated above or below the water, were remarkably ineffective at sinking ships. It took two atomic bombs to sink just 15 ships in 1946 (although nearby crews would also suffer heavy losses due to radiation). These ships were positioned in a formation tighter than any used in combat, so the damage caused would be even lower in a real world situation. Likewise formations of aircraft are widely spaced and would sustain limited damage from a huge explosion. Ground formations are denser, but if you were fighting an enemy with nuclear warheads would you let them ball up? Despite their enormous power, nuclear warheads produce a single sphere of destruction, and most spheres are overwhelmingly filled with empty space. For military use a series of small scale and accurately targeted explosions is far more effective (economically and tactically) than one big bomb. The only two types of viable targets for nuclear weapons are production centres and population centres, which are almost always the same thing: cities. The only cost-effective use of a nuclear weapon is a war crime.
The main argument given for having a preposterously large stockpile of war crimes on hand 24 hours a day is not to use them, but to deter other countries from attacking the UK. Looking around at the devastation that has plagued Northern Europe for the last half century, it is abundantly clear that we’ve needed it. In fact, I can’t think of any comparably developed countries that have been invaded anywhere in the last half century. Most of them don’t have nukes. The ridiculous nuclear arsenals maintained selfishly by a small number of states puts humanity at risk of what should be everyone’s deepest fear: nuclear war. I don’t think that nuclear war would make humans extinct, but it could easily destroy modern civilisation. Additionally, millions of innocent, conscious, feeling human beings would die wretched and terrified and screaming.
States which possess nuclear weapons are behaving in an incredibly childish way in a desperate bid to get or maintain authority. The ownership of these weapons is an implicit threat over the rest of the globe, used to further the agenda (s) of the nuclear states. Some Politics students may aseptically call it the purest form of state power, but I call it cowardice. Nuclear states are just the kids who bring a katana to school so that no one fucks with them. Unlike at school, these katana kids then joined a knife crime advocacy group to try and prevent other kids getting similar weapons. The greatest gift from the nuclear states to the rest of the world is the perfect definition of hypocrisy: Their joining the NPT. The NPT is supposed to work on the agreement that states without nuclear weapons will not develop them, in return for the states with nuclear weapons disarming. Despite signing the NPT the recognised nuclear states (USA, UK, Russia, China, France) are making no progress towards disarmament (see http://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2013/06). So, given the sort of language we saw in the UK government’s own paper, it is really a group of nuclear bullies who have no intention of disarming trying to stop other states from getting them. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are not signatories of the NPT and have developed nuclear weapons. India’s response is a reasonable one: the NPT creates nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” by distinguishing between states which tested weapons before 1967 and those which tested them afterwards, for no logical reason. The abject failure of the nuclear states to uphold their end of the bargain makes it more understandable for other states to develop nuclear weapons, making the world a more dangerous place for everyone.
Cost-Benefit Analysis for the UK
The question of whether we might ever have a situation in which using a nuclear weapon is the best and only option (possible scenarios outlined in my last post) is very difficult. Thankfully, that is not the pertinent question when it comes to deciding whether the UK should maintain a nuclear arsenal. The real question we have to answer, which is somewhat easier to answer but much more difficult to phrase, is this:
[X x P(X)] + [Y x P(Y)]> [A x P(A)] + [B x P(B)]+[C x P(C)]
X = Benefit of using a morally correct nuke
P(X) = Probability of nuke use being morally correct and the only option
Y = Benefit of threatening other states with a nuke
P(Y) = Probability of other states being threatened
A = Cost of nuclear war
P(A) = The probability of nuclear war occurring if the UK owns nuclear weapons
B = The cost of a terrorist attack using stolen weaponry
P(B) = The probability of UK nuclear weapons being stolen
C = Diplomatic cost with countries who disagree with the UK maintaining nuclear weapons
P(C) = Probability of countries resenting the UK’s maintenance of nuclear weapons
This a simple analysis pits the benefits of owning nuclear weapons to the UK multiplied by their probabilities versus the potential costs to the UK multiplied by their probabilities. If the left hand side is larger than the right hand side, we should keep nuclear weapons, and if not, we shouldn’t. It is reasonable to think that A>X, as nuclear war is pretty much the worst thing imaginable. Also, P(A) is probably larger than P(X): in the last 50 years we have had a number of near scrapes with nuclear war (the Cuban missile crisis, a false alarm in 1983, and a misidentified scientific rocket in 1995 are probably the closest) – although these incidents concerned the USA and Russia, they demonstrate that all that stands between us and nuclear war is a couple of accidents. Accidents do happen and have happened, repeatedly. I cannot think of any examples of 20th century history (or world history, for that matter) in which the use of a nuclear bomb would have been both morally correct (see https://gaijinsgrumblings.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/hiroshima-or-how-i-learned-to-loathe-the-bomb/ for my take on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and the only option.
The other terms in this equation are more difficult to evaluate. Threatening the use of nuclear weapons is of course illegal, but ignoring international law is easy and you don’t have to specifically threaten someone with your katana, just for them to feel threatened when you see it on your hip. Terrorist threats are very unpredictable, but the UK’s woeful record of safety using other nuclear materials does not fill you with confidence. So sadly we cannot answer this question satisfactorily with simple logic. In my opinion, nuclear war has the potential to be so damaging that it completely overbalances the left hand side, even without considering terrorist threats. There is a certain public goods game feel to this equation, and it is tempting to think that maybe states stay nuclear as they reap selfish benefits whilst everyone shares the cost of possible nuclear war. It is important to remember that in the event of a nuclear conflict our possession of nuclear weapons would make us a target. If America and Russia began fighting, where do you think Moscow would aim next?
The Right to Choose
For me, the unfathomable human suffering caused by nuclear weapons, and the just all-round shittiness of holding them to threaten everyone else is enough to persuade me that the UK should not renew its nuclear deterrent, but this is only my opinion. There is also the logical argument, which is not clear-cut, but I think still suggests that holding nuclear weapons is actually more dangerous than giving them up. However, this is a controversial issue and (many) people may disagree with me to varying degrees.
This got me thinking about democracy. This in turn led to the sad realisation that the key determinants for most voters are party loyalties and policies which are short term and have immediate effect upon them personally. Taxes, planning permission, benefits, education, hospital care, etc. Something as abstract and unimaginable as our apocalyptic nuclear arsenal is a footnote at best when competing with other issues. Sadly, western ‘democracy’ means that we only get to choose a certain formula of policies that are decided by political parties, rather than on policies individually – despite the fact we could do this easily. This means that many people who don’t actually want a nuclear deterrent can indirectly vote for one. For instance, a pensioner might (understandably) prioritise whether or not they can afford heating for another year over whether or not we own nuclear weapons. At the next election I would like to vote against updating our nuclear deterrent. That means I won’t vote Conservative, and Labour are still deciding their stance, which only leaves the Liberal Democrats. Having recently been a student, I’m contractually obliged to desire punishment of the Libdems, and so am left in a pickle. What if a Conservative supporter doesn’t agree with updating our nuclear arsenal? Vote Libdem?
The question of whether our country should maintain a large number of devastating weapons is a very important one, and now is the perfect time to ask it. Morally, it dictates if our country is to become much more capable of committing great evils than acts of good. Financially, it is extremely expensive, at an initial cost of £25-30 billion and a lifetime cost of £100 billion. £100 billion does not include renewing the warheads, which will come around 2020-30. Critically, we are at the right time (the arsenal apparently needs updating) to decide whether to maintain these weapons. After we have sunk the initial £25 billion into updating the weapons it will be a lot more difficult to justify getting rid of them (blame psychology). Initially, I thought that the best outcome would be for Labour to decide to abolish our nuclear deterrent, storm the next election, and finally the UK could grow up a little. Now, I think that the best outcome would be a simple referendum. The AV referendum cost £75 million, which is expensive. However, if a nuclear weapons referendum cost a similar amount (though if we have an EU referendum you could have it for almost free) this would still only be 0.075% of the financial price of our nuclear deterrent. This issue is important enough and expensive enough for the citizens of the UK to decide, rather than the political class who do such a bad job of ruling them. I have absolute faith that we, collectively, would make the right decision. If not, I could emigrate.
I would be so proud if the UK became the second country on earth to renounce nuclear weapons, and avoid being the Nth country to use them.
I would suggest a referendum be attached to the EU referendum, if it occurs, to save money, and be worded thus:
“The UK should update its nuclear deterrent at a lifetime cost of around £100 billion: Agree/Disagree
Additionally, if the UK does not update its nuclear deterrent would you prefer?
A) Maintaining the aging weapons we have
B) Total nuclear disarmament”
This wording avoids splitting the vote of those who want complete abolition and those who wish to maintain the weapons without updating them.
What You Can Do
Petition for disarmament: http://www.cnduk.org/campaigns/no-to-trident/scrap-trident-petition
Petition for a referendum: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/40986
Pressure labour policy makers: http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/agenda-2015/policy-commissions/britain-global-role-policy-commission/scrap-trident-replacement-support-negotiations-for-nuclear-weapons-convention
Ask your local mayor to join Mayors for Peace: http://www.mayorsforpeace.org/english/index.html
Spread the word.
Close shaves: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Arkhipov
2006 White Paper on our nuclear deterrent: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/27378/DefenceWhitePaper2006_Cm6994.pdf
Public Opinion Polls: http://www.cnduk.org/about/item/399
Political polls almost always have small sample sizes and methodological errors. Regardless, it is worth pointing out polls of UK public opinion consistently show opposition to nuclear weapons (I know this list is from the biased CND, but could find no reviews in favour through google…let me know if you do)
Other things to do with £100 billion: http://www.cnduk.org/scraptrident/
Yes Minister on nuclear weapons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IX_d_vMKswE