This weekend is seeing large protests against the potential renewal of the Trident nuclear weapon missile system. It’s probably not going to be on the news because the vast majority of news media is controlled by right-wing authoritarian xenophobes looking at the world through nostalgia glasses of when Britain used to be Great (in other words, when we had an Empire that covered most of the world’s surface), and only Loony Liberal Lefties want to diminish that Status. Newsflash pal: We didn’t build the Empire with nuclear weapons, and the Empire breaking up was heralded with the use of nukes.
First, some facts about Trident: It is a missile system designed for launch from submerged submarines, able to target and strike up to 7,000 miles away. Each missile can carry multiple independent warheads, so one missile can attack at least five targets simultaneously. The British nuclear deterrent uses Trident missiles aboard one of four submarines that are always at sea somewhere in the Atlantic ocean, where it carries eight nuclear-armed missiles, each with five warheads. Now some lesser-known facts: Each missile and warhead is built and maintained by an American contractor, the MOD actually lease the missiles from the USA, and by simply having access to their use, we are in breach of international law.
In breach of international law? Yes. In 1970, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) came into force. Britain is a signatory, and the treaty’s articles call first for not allowing nuclear weapon technology to spread nor to use them except in response to a nuclear attack, and second for signatories to disarm their nuclear arsenals.
1970. Forty-six years ago. And in that time Britain has twice replaced its’ nuclear weapon system (Polaris to Chevaline – technically an upgrade to Polaris to delay obsolescence rather than a true replacement, and Chevaline to Trident), and the government is now looking at extending the Trident system’s lifetime. So the UK has been in breach of international law for 46 years, and is hoping to extend that run.
So – nuclear weapons. The British independent nuclear deterrent. It’s not independent if we have to buy the warheads from another country, and the missiles are leased from a country that is also not our own. Plus, it’s not exactly British either, is it?
Okay then, deterrent. Who is it deterring? Well, assuming that no PM is insane enough to order a nuclear strike without the UK first being attacked by nuclear weapons, no one. And that’s not even assuming that every world leader is equally not-insane.
Wikipedia currently lists the USA, Russia, the UK, France and China as being the five states with nuclear weapons signed up to the NPT. It also lists India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel as having nuclear weapons, but are not signed up to the treaty. In total, 190 states are signed up to NPT, so that’s every country in the world except the four named above, and South Sudan.
So, assuming one of the aforementioned nuclear-armed countries wants to attack us with nuclear weapons, would the fact that we have nuclear weapons stop them from doing so? Lets have a look.
USA: If the USA wants to nuke us, they can and will. They have the world’s largest operable nuclear arsenal, and if they think the UK needs nuking they’re almost certainly not worried about nuking Russia or China any more. No deterrent value.
Russia: If Russia wants to nuke us, they can and will. They have the world’s second largest operable nuclear arsenal, and have a first-strike outlook. As they see the UK and USA as close allies, if they nuke one of us, they need to nuke the other, and as the UK has nukes, we will be a target. No deterrent value.
But hang on, what about our retaliation? Well consider this: The USA has 1900 operable nuclear weapons, Russia has 1780, and the UK has 150 – of which only 40 are available to launch at a few minutes’ notice. Russia probably has the world’s heaviest coverage of and most advanced anti-ballistic missile defence system, and the USA is just as capable of stopping incoming missiles as Russia. The UK’s land area is 93,000 square miles, population 63million. The USA’s land area is 3,806,000 square miles, population 322million. Russia’s land area is 6,593,000 square miles, population 144million. If Russia launched nukes at the USA and the UK in a ratio of 40:1 (roughly the ratio of our respective land areas), we would have to shoot down 43 warheads. Both Russia and the USA can deliver warheads from submarines, land-based missile launchers, and from in-flight aircraft, where the UK only has submarine-launched missiles. This means that our missile defence system as to be three times as versatile as theirs. If six 200kt (the size of nuke the UK has access to, but the USA and Russia have bigger – up to 50 times bigger) warheads get through, targeting London, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow, that’s a million dead, twice that injured, nearly 1000 hospitals destroyed, 360 square miles utterly destroyed, five times that area irradiated, and massive swathes of both sea and land that need to be avoided for the next hundred years (minimum). What would we do to Russia and/or the USA? Assuming the same effectiveness ratio (43:6) of defences, we only get to land five nukes. The same property destruction and slightly less casualties as quoted above, but more hospitals and many more fire stations destroyed. But the proportions? The UK would lose 1.5% population and 0.4% land area (not including radiation casualties and land damage), the USA 0.3% population and 0.01% land area, Russia 0.7% population and 0.005% land area. The damage to the UK could be much, much bigger, the damage to the others can not. If we get into a nuclear war with either the USA or Russia, we’re screwed – we will shoot our entire bolt in one go, they will both be able to send in further strikes and/or conventional forces to mop the floor with what’s left of us.
So, who’s left? France: They have more launch options than the UK, and have nearly twice as many operable warheads, and some larger warheads. Damage would probably be about proportionally equal though, and there would be no advantage to a nuclear exchange, especially given proximity to each other, and the efficiency and capability of conventional forces available. Also bear in mind that, assuming the UK does not nuke France first, as soon as France uses nukes, Spain, Italy and Germany will probably kick its’ arse before they kick the UK’s, so it would probably be a net disadvantage for France to use nukes against the UK. Possible deterrent value.
China: Has no operable warheads, but about 50 missiles capable of reaching the UK. However, they consider the USA to be the more immediate threat and don’t really consider us worth their military’s time. No deterrent value.
India: Again, no operable warheads, and the only missiles capable of reaching us are untested or still in development. They also consider us to be not a threat, especially compared to China, Russia, and Pakistan. No deterrent value.
Pakistan: No operable warheads, no delivery system capable of reaching us, consider India to be the most immediate/only threat. No deterrent value.
North Korea: No operable warheads, probably only one or two actual nukes anyway, no delivery systems capable of reaching the UK (they have missiles that could in development, but their existing missile tech is shaky at best, so it’s doubtful if a longer-ranged missile would work), and only interested in nuking the USA and South Korea. No deterrent value.
Israel: It’s an open secret that they have nuclear weapons. Because of their secrecy, it’s unknown if they might have operable warheads or they might not, but they do have missiles capable of reaching the UK. A UK counter-strike could wipe them off the map, so they would have to be sure of a 100% successful first strike. On the other hand, what would happen to them if they nuked the UK? Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey would invade, they would lose all their support from the USA (the Jewish lobby there being vital to the continued running of their fascist regime, but as soon as they use nukes every company or Senator will wash their hands of them), and they would never get another tourist (a large percentage of their GDP is from tourism) – and that’s even if we don’t launch a counter-strike. No deterrent value.
So, what does that leave? Two countries who could brush aside our nuclear counter-strike, four countries who either can’t nuke us or can’t be bothered to nuke us, one country who would be wiped out by their neighbours within days of using nukes whether or not we launch a counter-strike, and one country that would end up just as badly off as we would be in a nuclear exchange. So, possibly one country would be deterred from nuking us by our nuclear weapons. It happens to be the country we’ve been at war with the most since 1066, but unless the UK gets officially labelled a rogue state, France will not nuke us.
Okay, so nuclear weapons do not deter other nuclear-armed countries from attacking us. What about others who might attack us with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, thus possibly giving a justification for a nuclear retaliation?
How exactly is a nuclear missile in a submarine in the middle of the Atlantic going to deter a religious fanatic from parking a Transit van with a dirty nuke in the back in the middle of London and sitting on it while it detonates? As far as they’re concerned, the more infidel unbelievers they can kill in the act of dying, the more certain they are to get into paradise. No deterrent value there, then. What about nuking their base? What base, their flat in Croydon? Or did you mean the training camps run by the psuedo-religious death cult currently fighting wars of extermination across three countries in the Middle East?
Okay, where do we aim the missile? Which of the three countries the death cult has a military presence in would you like to turn into an enemy? And since bombing ordinary people with high explosives actually creates terrorists who hate us and want to join the death cult to get back at us, what effect do you think nuking will have on the local population? It won’t just be the death cult’s leaders and military commanders and kidnapped scientists who will be affected, it will mostly be the ordinary people who live there who will be affected. I mean, those who aren’t melted alive, flash-fried, literally ripped apart by the pressure wave, or who have their cell chemistry scrambled from receiving more radiation in one second than you would if you were one of the Soviet soldiers who helped clean up Chernobyl, obviously.
So, apart from not being independent, not being British, and not actually being a deterrent, Trident is illegal and to renew it will cost upwards of £100billion. For that sort of money, we could completely pay for every hospital casualty department in the country for the next 40 years.
What would you choose? A useless, expensive and illegal status symbol, or not having to worry about the NHS being privatised for the same length of time as we’ve been a de jure rogue state? I know which one I choose.