Living With Trident

Published at The Scottish Review, May 2015


The war against Hitler cost somewhere between 60 and 80 million lives, most of them civilian. This exceeded the human cost of the first world war by at least three times. It also reduced so much of Germany to rubble that some observers thought that she would never recover. The scale of destruction was massive. The Red Army, which was largely responsible for breaking the Nazi war machine, was a major cause of it, as was the RAF’s bomber command. The allies’ war, therefore, was already one of mass destruction long before American planes dropped atomic bombs upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of Britons, both north and south of the border, think that it was justified. They think that the fact and threat of Nazi tyranny was so very terrible as to warrant the appalling costs of fending it off. The question of quite how high a price we should pay for justice – the question of when that price is proportionate – is a very difficult one to answer. In the course of waging war between 1939 and 1945 allied bombing killed 70,000 French civilians – not intentionally, of course, but because more accurate bomb-aiming technology wasn’t available. But if resisting Nazism was worth the lives of 70,000 civilians, can we say with confidence that it wouldn’t have been worth 100,000, 500,000, or even a million? I don’t think we can.

It seems that most of us recognise that it can be right to pay a very high price indeed to resist tyranny. What’s more, even some of the victims have recognised it, too. During the invasion of Normandy in 1944 allied bombing trapped a civilian in the cellar of a house in Caen. As he slowly suffocated to death, he took the trouble to scratch on the wall: ‘I will never see this liberation for which I have waited for so long, but I know that through my death others will be set free. Long live France! Long live the allies!’. (‘Les Larmes de la Liberté’, France 3 Normandie television, June 1994.)

So here was someone whose innocent life was fated to be among the terrible costs of the struggle for justice, but who himself reckoned it a price worth paying. He didn’t deserve to die, but tragically his death was necessary to defend a more or less humane civilisation from systematically atrocious tyranny. And if that was true of him, then why wouldn’t it also be true of thousands or even millions of others?


Nuclear weapons are also causes of mass destruction. A single strategic Trident warhead is about eight times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, which killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people; and even a sub-strategic warhead is still around half as powerful. These weapons are obviously very much more destructive than any single weapon deployed in the second world war. Does that mean that it would be immoral ever to use them?

Not necessarily. Some sub-strategic nuclear weapons could be used without incurring any civilian casualties at all – for example, against incoming missiles or submarines. But what about strategic weapons? It’s most unlikely that these could be used without causing hundreds of thousands civilian deaths. Neither ethics nor law, however, prohibit the causing of such deaths as such. They only prohibit them when they are indiscriminate.

To kill indiscriminately doesn’t mean simply to fail to avoid killing civilians; it means to positively desire to kill them – to deliberately target them – say, to terrify an enemy government into submission. Accordingly, a policy of counter-city strikes, where nuclear weapons are deliberately aimed at population centres in order to maximise civilian casualties, would be immoral; whereas a policy of aiming weapons of the minimum necessary power at vital military objectives, with the foreseeable side-effect of probably or certainly massive civilian casualties, would not be.

Arguably, much targeting policy during the Cold War was indiscriminate and therefore immoral. But if that was so then, it is so no longer. Nuclear weapons are now far more accurate than they were in the 1970s, and are therefore able to destroy their objectives more efficiently and with less explosive force. As a result ‘city-bombing is no longer the central tenet of nuclear strategies…Gone are the multi-megaton city-busters’, affirms the leading French expert, Bruno Tertrais (‘In Defense of Deterrence’, 2011).

‘In most countries, nuclear deterrence does not focus at all on the destruction of cities. Nuclear strategies concern military objectives, assets that adversaries hold dear and centres of power; not cities per se or populations, which may not be valued by dictatorships’ (‘The Four Straw Men of the Apocalypse’, Survival, 2013). The UK adopted this discriminate focus as far back as 1980, when it justified its acquisition of Trident on the ground that it wanted to be able to pose a credible threat only to ‘key aspects of Soviet state power’ (‘The Future United Kingdom Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Force’, 1980).

But surely any use of nuclear weapons, however limited at first, would risk escalation to full nuclear exchange, and so be immorally reckless? Whether or not such use would risk escalation, and how high that risk would be, would depend on the circumstances. It cannot be determined in advance and in abstraction. Presumably if nuclear weapons were used to respond to aggression by a non-nuclear state, there would be no risk at all. No doubt the circumstantial contingency of risk was among the reasons why, in its Advisory Opinion of July 1996, the International Court of Justice declined to judge illegal the use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear state ‘in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake’ (‘Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons’, 8 July 1996).


Still, even if the use of nuclear weapons could be morally justified in extreme

circumstances, the scale of destruction would be absolutely appalling. That’s why the UK’s policy of deterrence aims to prevent such circumstances from ever arising, by leaving an enemy in no doubt at all that the costs of aggression would be prohibitively high.

But in order to deter, we have to threaten. Therefore the government refuses to exclude the possibility of using nuclear weapons in defence of vital interests, and indeed it refuses to rule out first use: ‘We deliberately maintain ambiguity about precisely when, how, and at what scale we would contemplate use of our nuclear deterrent. We will not simplify the calculations of a potential aggressor by defining more precisely the circumstances in which we might consider the use of our nuclear capabilities. Hence, we will not rule in or out the first use of nuclear weapons’ (‘The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent’, 2006).

The Church of Scotland, however, objects. In its 2009 report, ‘The Ethics of Defence’, it exhorts us to trust in God instead of placing other people ‘in a position of fear or threat’. By threatening others rather than seeking to be reconciled with them, a policy of nuclear deterrence is, it implies, immoral.

But this is facile. For sure, fear and mistrust are not symptoms of a happy, healthy relationship. Ideally, they wouldn’t exist. In the world as we have it, however, persons and states sometimes do unjust things that give others very good reasons to fear and mistrust them. In that case, the road to reconciliation doesn’t lie in pretending that nothing has happened and just holding out the hand of friendship anyway. It begins, rather, with signalling to the wrongdoer that he has done wrong by opposing it and pressing him to think again and change his ways in such a fashion that trust could be restored. It may be true – as I believe it is – that we should always trust God. But it really doesn’t follow that we should always trust Vladimir Putin or Islamic State.

Besides, rational mistrust can (and should) be moderated by an earnest desire to overcome it, and policies of deterrent threat can (and should) be complemented by confidence-building ones. Even during the Cold War the US and the USSR developed protocols to enhance communication and transparency, and to reduce the scope for catastrophic misunderstanding. That’s what the famous ‘hot line’ was all about.


So there’s nothing immoral about nuclear deterrence as such. But does it actually work? If it doesn’t, it’s a waste of a vast sum of public money – and if the waste isn’t exactly criminal, it would certainly be tragic. In favour of the efficacy of deterrence are the following facts: there has been no direct military conflict between the major powers in the 70 years since the nuclear era began; there has been no direct, all-out conflict between two nuclear states; no nuclear state has ever been invaded; and no state covered by another state’s nuclear ‘umbrella’ has ever been the target of a major state attack.

Correlation doesn’t amount to causation, however; and it is impossible to prove that these happy effects were caused by nuclear deterrence. Some argue that other causes

have been responsible – for example, the development of international institutions since 1945 and the rise of global trade. These, however, don’t seem sufficient, since rising global trade didn’t prevent the outbreak of war in 1914, nor the League of Nations its outbreak in 1939.

Besides, there is first-hand testimony that the fear of nuclear war, and even ethical considerations, did indeed shape the policies of American and Soviet decision-makers during the Cold War. Lawrence Freedman, widely regarded as Britain’s foremost strategic analyst, has commented that ‘to one who has spent some time researching the views of policymakers during the most tense moments of the Cold War, the suggestion that the fear of nuclear war was of scant importance in inducing caution and designing policies is preposterous’ (‘Eliminators, Marginalists and the Politics of Disarmament’, in John Baylis and Robert O’Neill, eds, ‘Alternative Nuclear Futures: The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the Post-Cold War World’, 2000).

Counting against the efficacy of nuclear deterrence, maybe, are the many instances of a non-nuclear state defying a nuclear armed adversary. Thus the Soviets were not deterred by American nuclear weapons from blockading Berlin in 1948, China routed US troops in North Korea in 1950, the Arab states attacked Israel in 1973, the North Vietnamese overthrew a US client state in Saigon in 1975, Argentina annexed the Falkland Islands in 1982, and Saddam Hussein bombarded Israel with Scud missiles in 1991. Surely these all demonstrate that nuclear deterrence doesn’t work? Not really.

All they show is that the non-nuclear states correctly calculated that the US, Israel, and Britain wouldn’t use their nuclear weapons in the absence of a threat to their vital interests, most obviously their survival. Insofar as nuclear states only threaten to use their nuclear weapons in extremis (as indeed they should), their deterrent is not intended to ward off every kind of threat. None of these cases, therefore, show that the nuclear deterrent failed to achieve its intended purpose.

The fact that nuclear deterrence has been effective in the past doesn’t mean, of course, that it will continue to be effective in the future. It could be that the threats we now face are of such a kind that nuclear weapons are ill suited to ward them off. After all, they can hardly be deployed usefully against Islamist terrorists in our midst or against the uncertain agents of cyber attacks.

That is quite true. But history doesn’t stand still, nor does it always move in the same direction. Twenty-five years ago we thought that we’d seen the end of the Cold War; now relations between the West and Russia are freezing again. And this year China is planning to increase its defence spending by 10%, hard on the heels of last year’s 12.2% increase, while rattling its nationalistic sabre over the South China Sea. Even if the UK is not presently subject to the threat of direct aggression by a nuclear state with overwhelming conventional forces or with the capacity to overwhelm by biological weapons, it is not at all inconceivable that she should become so again in the future.


So there are conceivable threats that a nuclear deterrent might be needed to deter. But

why does the UK need its own independent deterrent? Why don’t we just rely on the US one, like every other state in Europe except France?

There are three answers to this. First, by providing a second centre of decision-making within NATO, Britain’s nuclear weapons complicate an enemy’s calculations, make them less certain, and thereby enhance deterrence and collective security – especially in a situation where it’s doubtful that the US would put itself at risk.

Second, if a nuclear deterrent is necessary, it is not at all clear why Europe, now wealthier than ever before in its history and wealthier than most other parts of the planet, still thinks it appropriate to depend on American provision two generations after the end of the second world war. In September 2014 all NATO members pledged to raise their defence spending to 2% of GDP. In 2014-15 the US spent 3.6% on defence. The only other NATO allies whose spending met the pledge were the UK, Greece, and Estonia at 2-3% – and the UK’s is predicted to fall below the threshold in 2015-16.

In this context, as the Trident Commission observed last year, ‘the UK nuclear deterrent is seen by many within the United States and in the rest of the Alliance as an important and highly symbolic contribution to balancing the transatlantic nuclear burden. There is a growing frustration within the United States with its European allies and their shrinking military capacity to operate meaningfully alongside them’ (Trident Commission’s Concluding Report, July 2014). So the second reason why the UK should maintain its own nuclear deterrent is that the responsibility for the nuclear dimension of European security should not be borne by the US alone, but should be shared by at least one other member of NATO.

The third reason is that we ought not to presume that the vital interests of the UK and the US will forever coincide. Periodically Americans suffer bouts of isolationism, reckoning that the rest of the world should take responsibility for solving their own problems. This was how they saw things during the first two years of the second world war, only fully stirring to come to Britain’s rescue after they themselves had suffered direct attack at Pearl Harbour in December 1941.

What’s more, both demographic trends within the US and the rise of China count against the presumption of future American commitment to Europe’s security, at least at current levels. As Robert Kaplan wrote recently in the Financial Times: ‘The last of America’s second world war veterans will soon be dead. The European-oriented elites that have influenced foreign and defence policy in Washington are gradually being replaced by bright young men and women – many of them the offspring of immigrants from Asia and Latin America – who bring with them different family histories and emotional priorities. This coincides with the security challenges and opportunities that America encounters outside of Europe, particularly in Asia, where American allies are willing to maintain robust, deployable militaries’ (‘America will lose patience with European appeasement’, Financial Times, 7 April 2015).


Many of those who call for Trident to be scrapped see it as a symbol of ‘hard power’, off

which the UK should long ago have been weaned. (And many who support Scottish independence do so in part because they see it as a way of forcing this issue.) Their view is that the UK’s attachment to nuclear weapons is basically fuelled by the British policy- elite’s hankering after the imperial power and role of global policeman, albeit now with the reduced status of deputy to the US’s sheriff. This is at once delusory, pathetic, and immoral. It’s delusory, because Britain no longer has the power to rule the world as she once did. It’s pathetic because it makes the British play poodle to America. And it’s immoral, because it involves threatening and dominating other peoples, often by waging war against them, sometimes in violation of international law. Instead, Britain should shake off its post-imperial hangover, follow Europe rather than America, surrender its nuclear weapons, concentrate on wielding soft power, and limit its military activity to UN peacekeeping operations.

What should we make of all this? First, at least since the Suez crisis of 1956 no Westminster government has been unaware of the limits of British power. In fact, even at the height of our imperial ascendancy in the late 19th century, our rulers were acutely aware that it was waning.

Second, it simply isn’t true that post-war Britain has always meekly trotted along behind the US. Harold Wilson refused to send British troops to Vietnam; Margaret Thatcher arm-twisted Ronald Reagan into supporting the ejection of the Argentines from the Falkland Islands in 1982; and Tony Blair publicly embarrassed a very reluctant (and resentful) Bill Clinton into deploying US military force in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999.

Third, if the UK is expected to give up the use of hard power, is that because no one should use it at all or because someone else should use it instead and better?

Unless we buy into an impossibly sunny view of human beings and ignore the obvious lessons of history, we have to acknowledge that intractably malevolent leaders can sometimes move nation states (like empires) to do atrocious things. And unless we’re pacifist, we also have to acknowledge that sometimes atrocious things must be stopped by armed force. Perhaps we think that the UN should do the policing – but the UN has only as many regiments as nation-states choose to loan it. No doubt a thoroughly post- imperial, Scandinavian-like Britain would lend its troops for peacekeeping purposes. But who, then, would fight the wars to make the just peace to be kept?

Maybe what the critics want is not exactly the UK’s abandonment of hard power, so much as its strict submission to the collective will of the UN Security Council. If so, they would be content for the enforcement capacity of the UN to be at the mercy of the threat of veto by Putin’s Russia and the Communist Party’s China, neither of whose records of humanitarian concern are exactly famous. They would also join Alex Salmond in condemning NATO’s 1999 military intervention to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo as a ‘misguided’ policy of ‘dubious legality and unpardonable folly’ (the Scotsman, 30 March 1999).

Embarrassingly, however, this would align them against the then UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan. It would also set them at odds with most international lawyers.

Commenting on the Kosovo intervention, Martti Koskenniemi, widely considered to be a leading historian and philosopher of international law, has written that ‘most lawyers – including myself – have taken the ambivalent position that it was both formally illegal and morally necessary’ (‘The Lady Doth Protest Too Much: Kosovo and the Turn to

Ethics in International Law’, The Modern Law Review, March 2002).

The truth is that, in the world as we have it, the upholding of international order and the rescue of the innocent from mass atrocity sometimes require the naked use of armed force. That is a lamentable and tragic fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. Hard power, then, is morally necessary; we need some states to be ready to exercise it. If so, why shouldn’t Britain be among them?


Hard power is morally necessary, and the UK should continue to be one of those powers able and willing to use it, not least because so many of its European partners are barely able and seldom willing. Under current circumstances, hard power should include the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. But should it include Trident? Aren’t cheaper options available? And couldn’t savings be made that would fund hospitals and schools instead?

If Trident were completely scrapped, there would be significant savings in the medium- to-long term, but not – with all due respect to the SNP – immediately. As comments Ian David, arms control consultant and former director of the British American Security Information Council: ‘The financial and employment consequences of cancelling Trident are likely to be neutral in the short term. Any savings in the £2.24bn annual operational and maintenance costs are likely to be offset by decommissioning costs’ (in Severin Carrell, ‘Savings from scrapping Trident would be negligible’, Guardian, Politics Blog, 30 April 2010). And if the UK were to decide to retain its fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines, their renewal would absorb a hefty portion of the savings from scrapping Trident.

Talk of major savings would be beside the point, however, if there is no system of nuclear deterrence alternative to Trident that is equally effective. Is there? It seems not. Effective deterrence requires the ability to make a credible threat of a ‘second strike’ – that is, of retaliation against a nuclear ‘first strike’. For such a threat to be credible, the second strike capability must be assured. In terms of range, accuracy, speed, and difficulty of interception, ballistic missiles are significantly better than cruise missiles, and their effectiveness and therefore credibility as a deterrent is accordingly higher.

Within the past 24 months, two exhaustive studies into alternatives to Trident have been published, the Trident Alternatives Review (July 2013) and the Trident Commission’s Concluding Report (June 2014). The first was a government report sponsored by the Liberal Democrats; the second, the outcome of a parliamentary commission supported by the anti-nuclear organisation, BASIC. Both the sponsoring and supporting bodies were hoping for a different answer, but both reports concluded that cruise missiles would be unsatisfactory, with the Trident Commission commenting

that, compared to ballistic rivals, Trident is ‘the most sophisticated, capable nuclear weapon delivery system on the planet’ (Trident Commission).

Effective deterrence, however, doesn’t depend solely on the qualities of the missiles. It also depends on the missiles being deployed in a fashion that makes them invulnerable to a first strike. Such invulnerability is currently achieved through at least one submarine being on patrol in highly secret locations at any one time – that is, through Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD). Marginal savings could be made by reducing the number of submarines and having them patrol randomly rather than continuously. But this would create periods when no submarine was at sea, during which the nuclear deterrent would be vulnerable to a first strike.

There is no nuclear weapons system and policy of deployment so effective as Trident and CASD, respectively, and whose combined credibility as a deterrent is therefore as strong. And since, unlike any other nuclear weapons state, the UK now only has one system of delivery, it is imperative that this one be reliable.


But how can renewing Trident possibly accord with the UK’s responsibility under the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue to disarmament?

Well, the terms of the treaty don’t commit the signatory nuclear weapons states to disarm unilaterally. None of them would have signed it, if it had. Rather, Article VI obliges them ‘to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament’.

As it happens, the UK has taken its responsibility more seriously than any other state. Since the end of the Cold War it has withdrawn all classes of tactical nuclear weapons, reduced its overall operational arsenal to 120 warheads, abandoned all but the submarine platform, lowered the system’s operational readiness, and heightened the transparency of its holdings of fissile material, warheads and platform postures. As the report of the all-party Trident Commission comments: ‘The number of warheads in the stockpile and deployed on submarines has come under regular review, and each time there has been a downward shift in the definition of minimum deterrent’ (Trident Commission). The result is that, of all the states recognised by the Treaty as possessors of nuclear weapons – and, since they’re the same, of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the UK now has the smallest stockpile and it is the only one with a single delivery system.

Moreover, in its 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the British government committed itself to reducing its overall stockpile of nuclear weapons yet further from ‘not more than 225 to not more than 180’ by the mid-2020s. This will amount to a reduction of stockpiles just before the end of the Cold War (1986) by 40%. In addition, it promised not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapons state that is party to, and compliant with, the NPT.

In addition to minimising her own arsenal, Britain has been active – and successful – in striving to stop nuclear proliferation. She is one of six states now trying to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme doesn’t produce a bomb. Twelve years ago British intelligence work and diplomacy played a leading part in persuading Libya to renounce its nuclear weapons programme. And whatever else one might want to say about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it certainly put a permanent end to Saddam Hussein’s persistent ambition to secure nuclear weapons. (Dr David Kelly, the British expert on biological weapons made famous by committing suicide during the controversy after the invasion, is less famous for the article he wrote shortly before it, in which he judged that regime change was the only way to put a final and conclusive end to Iraq’s attempts at arming itself with weapons of mass destruction.)

Anti-Trident campaigners are impatient, arguing that Britain’s retaining nuclear weapons encourages other states to acquire them, and that she should therefore show moral leadership by disarming unilaterally. There is, however, no evidence that frustration at the failure of states with nuclear weapons to disarm completely is moving non-nuclear states to acquire them. The vast majority of the latter show no such inclination at all. And those that do, do so for reasons concerning the regional balance of military power. As for moral leadership, that’s only valuable if there’s a decent chance that others might follow. And there’s absolutely no reason to suppose that the UK’s disarmament would shame Putin’s Russia, the Communist Party’s China, or Kim Jong Un’s North Korea into following suit.

Ironically, it is the anti-nuclear campaigners who suffer here from an imperial form of post-imperial delusion, grossly overestimating Britain’s power to change the world with soft power. Non-westerners do have minds and concerns of their own. It’s really not all about us.


Would that nuclear weapons had never been invented! But they have. Would that they could be disinvented! But they can’t. Would that a single, bold, brave, clean act of unilateral self-purification would so inspire international trust as to stimulate global, multilateral renunciation! But it really wouldn’t.

What remains, then, but despair and inertia? Hope remains – but only of a certain kind. It needn’t be impatient and reckless. It needn’t only take the form of relentless, fingers- in-the-ears Project Optimism, whether Donald Rumsfeld’s or Alex Salmond’s. It can be patient and sober instead. This kind of hope remains that, as in the past so in the future, the careful management of nuclear deterrence will continue to discourage tyrants from chancing their aggressive arm; that the incremental strengthening of international norms and institutions will bolster trust and relax tension; that more non-nuclear states can be dissuaded or stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons altogether; and that the stockpiles of those already armed can be further reduced. So we can hope, soberly and prudently. And those of us who’re religious, knowing what can befall the best laid plans of mice and men, will also pray to God almighty to meet our efforts with the miracle of good fortune.

So there’s room for hope in our prudence. But if there’s also prudence in our hope, then, while we needn’t learn to love Trident, we ought to learn to live with it.

Nigel Biggar is regius professor of moral and pastoral theology, and director of the McDonald Centre for theology, ethics, and public life, at the University of Oxford. He is the author of ‘In Defence of War’ (2013)

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