BASIC and WMD Awareness held another event in the Talking Trident: A Conversation with the Next Generation event series on 15th January at the University of Warwick. These events are a series of debates being held to give young adults in Britain the opportunity to express their opinions on the issue of nuclear weapons before the government makes a decision on whether to renew its nuclear system, Trident, in 2016.
At the University of Warwick, Sir Nick Harvey, a Liberal Democrat MP and recent Minister of Defence who initiated the government’s Trident Alternatives Review, spoke with students about the history of the Trident system, options in the coming year, and how students should be engaged in the issue. Many themes and concerns were addressed at the event that are outlined here.
The world has changed...why can’t Trident?
Trident was originally procured in the 1980s to replace the Polaris nuclear system, and was a hot topic in the 1983 elections when under Michael Foot Labour was implacably opposed to Britain retaining nuclear weapons. At the height of the Cold War nuclear war was a very potent political symbol and public awareness of the dangers was acute. Today, nuclear war or exchange is less likely and, as Harvey argued, the UK has no nuclear adversary to justify spending the same amount of money. Trident once accounted for a small fraction of a larger defence budget, but its renewal today accounts for a much higher proportion, even though the threat is much lower. In today’s terms, replacing all four Vanguard submarines used to carry the Trident system would cost anywhere from £21bn to £30bn. In addition to the replacement costs, the cost of running the system until 2062, when it would need to be replaced again, would be between £1.5 to 2.0 billion per year in today’s prices, which (without accounting for the capital spend) is 5.0 - 6.5% of the defence budget.
Is Trident worth it? There have been many proposals for alternatives to the current system, including investing in submarines with other capabilities in addition to deploying a nuclear warhead, switching to a significantly cheaper airplane-based nuclear system, or continuing to use the same system, but stop continuous at sea deterrence (CASD). By reigning in CASD, it would allow for fewer submarines and simultaneously decrease yearly operating costs.
The UK on the world stage
There was a question from the audience about the danger to Britain’s status on the UN Security Council if it reconsidered its nuclear weapons programme. But there is no clear relationship between nuclear weapon possession and permanent membership of the UN Security Council (along with the United States, China, France, and Russia), there would be no political drive to change Britain’s status, and no legal mechanism to do so (the UK would have to vote itself off the Security Council). It is merely an unfortunate coincidence that the P5 members of the UN Security Council are also the five nuclear weapons states recognised by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and it is there that the lines between the two may cause confusion.
Reducing, or eventually getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether, would not impact the UK’s position on the world stage. Nuclear capability is not what allows the UK to be involved worldwide in humanitarian and military efforts. Sir Nick Harvey argued that by decreasing the money spent on Trident and instead spending that money to have more varied conventional abilities, it could make the UK a greater asset around the world.
The real threats we face
In today’s world, the threat of terrorism is exponentially greater than the threat that another country would drop a nuclear bomb on the UK. The renewal of Trident will cost a huge portion of the defence budget that Sir Nick suggested we should be looking to allocate to anti-terrorism efforts instead. Nuclear weapons have no relevance in deterring terrorists, and targeting the states that might support nuclear terrorism is fraught with difficulties. While many global leaders are working to secure the world’s supply of nuclear materials (the Nuclear Security Summit process is one example), the threat of nuclear terrorism, or the proliferation of nuclear weapons into the hands of terrorists remains high. Harvey suggested instead, that boosting efforts of the GCHQ to intercept communications or similar actions would be a better way to protect the country in such a situation.
The bottom line is: do nuclear weapons protect us from the threats we, as a nation, face today? Many have considered this question in light of nuclear policy, and even currently the government thinks that a minimum nuclear deterrent is all that we need for our protection. Focusing on existing threats will provide a safer life for all rather than spending exorbitant amounts of money on a system that will likely never be used.
What should young people do?
In contrast to 1983, Trident is not yet at the centre stage of this upcoming election. However, it is possible the issue may gain more attention than it has been getting. At this event, Sir Nick Harvey encouraged young people to go to debates and public events and ask questions about Trident and alternatives. He also urged young people to go to candidates’ offices, write, or call to ask candidates questions about where they stand on Trident renewal. In addition, he suggested calling into TV stations or radio stations to bring awareness of the issue to the greater public. At the event, young people were told that increased interest on an issue from constituents is what makes members of Parliament talk about it. If we want Trident talked about in this election, we must be the ones to bring it forward.
This is a reflection on this Talking Trident event, but these are the opinions of the author.