Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When sitting on the fence can be positively dangerous

Vanguard at Faslane
There are credible arguments to be made for maintaining a nuclear deterrent and for scrapping it. There is no credible argument for the finer points of the new Lib Dem policy on Trident.

On the one hand, Trident is a Cold War solution to a Cold War problem. Is there an enemy out there with the capability of causing such destruction that this level of potential response might demand? Is there any chance that if the worst happened that the US would not be bound to respond? A nuclear attack that destroyed London would kill 200,000 US citizens - more than live in Salt Lake City or Little Rock. But then, the major nuclear state players are hardly likely to hit the UK - would we consider responding with nuclear force to a non-state entity who hit us with weapons of mass destruction and would deterrence work in any case? Would any PM actually order a launch? There is a strong moral argument against the possession of these ultimate weapons and that we could make a statement by withdrawing from the nuclear weapon business - as has every other country in Europe apart from France.

On the other hand, it is a long term purchase. Just as few forecast the end of the Soviet Union from the chill of the Cold War in the 80s, can we foresee the threats that might be directed at us in 2025 or 2040, well within the operational lifetime of Trident and successor weapon systems? Might we need deterrence again?

For this is the thing about nuclear weapons - they are not ever meant to be used. Their efficacy lies in their deterrence value. The other side have to believe that your capacity to respond is credible, that you might be prepared to use it and that it might get through their defences. From the V-bombers sitting on their quick reaction pads in the 60s through to their submerged successors in Polaris and Trident boats, hiding in the depths of the Atlantic, that's the function of these political weapons.

The Lib Dem proposal drives a coach and horses through this idea and actually increases the potential for volatility.

We'll ignore the fantasy of having boats with dual capacity for nuclear and conventional operations. That's only possible if you shift from ballistic missiles in favour of something smaller, like a nuclear-tipped submarine-launched cruise missile. Ballistic missile boats are all huge beasts, designed for operation in the lesser-travelled parts of the world's oceans, crawling around silently, hiding away from anyone else. Hunter-killers are faster and smaller. The two roles are very different and require different equipment.

They propose to end the Constant At Sea Deterrent (CASD) - a permanent alert status that is a prerequisite for deterrence. Oddly, they suggest that they will maintain some form of patrol using boats that are not nuclear armed, which seems rather pointless. This will save money, as it will only require three boats and crews rather than the current four, which is about the only benefit. Submarines would be sortied at times of tension. On the one hand, that seems an interesting idea, but there's a story that should give concern.

Back in late autumn 1983, NATO conducted an exercise called Able Archer 83, which simulated a rise in tension and actually stepped up to the point of nuclear release. The Soviet Union was aware of this exercise and was concerned that it may have been a cover for genuine aggression - agents were tasked to report any signs of war posturing. They even put their own nuclear and air strike forces onto higher alert, considering that they might have to launch first. The West wasn't aware of the depth of the Soviet response until after the exercise ended, nor of the risks that they ran for a few days. Imagine the tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but where only one side is playing for real.

Now imagine that replayed where a British government sortied a nuclear armed submarine from Faslane. Immediately, that makes a statement about any situation - it may even be regarded as a threat by a paranoid opponent, but it certainly marks an escalation. That, of course, assumes that we have a fully trained crew and operational boat available - one that hasn't just returned from patrol or is down for refit.

And that's the danger. The one thing you don't want to do in nuclear politics is ratchet up the tension, but that's just what this policy risks.

As I wrote at the start, scrapping Trident is a valid policy. Retaining a deterrent can also be justified, but you can't justify this cobbled-together policy that sits squarely on the fence, taking neither the moral high ground nor offering effective deterrence.

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