Britain to spend billions on nuclear weapons
Parliament has voted to keep its nuclear deterrent for 32 years, at an estimated cost of £205 billion. With luck, it will never be used. But should we trust weapons like this to keep us safe?
Within hours of becoming prime minister, Theresa May wrote a letter. In it, she instructed the guardians of Britain’s nuclear missiles how to react if the government is wiped out in an attack. The letter is top secret; let us hope we will never have to learn its contents.
Britain’s missiles are stored on a fleet of submarines known as Trident. By threatening retaliation, they are designed to deter states from attacking the nation. Yesterday MPs voted to renew the fleet, which is due for an update.
Yet the issue bitterly divided Parliament. There were many factors in the debate, including the costs and jobs involved. Most fundamentally, MPs differed on whether nuclear deterrents actually keep us safe. May argued that ditching Trident would leave Britain vulnerable; Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘you don’t achieve peace by planning for war’.
In theory, the world is by and large committed to abolishing nuclear weapons. Politicians often pledge to do so. Most countries (including Britain) have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which obliges them to aim for ‘general and complete’ nuclear disarmament.
Nevertheless, progress toward this ideal has been slow. The stockpiles of most nuclear nations have shrunk since the height of the Cold War, and the NPT is credited with discouraging some other nations from developing their own weapons.
But not all. States such as Iran and North Korea seem determined to develop weapons in secret. They have been assisted by Pakistan, a nuclear nation that has not signed the NPT. Meanwhile, the USA is accused of employing double standards by creating new kinds of weapons for its own use.
In this climate of mistrust, nuclear nations are reluctant to take the initiative and abandon their stockpiles. Hence the vote to renew Trident. Are we playing with fire? Or are nuclear weapons an essential feature of our world?
Deterrents like Trident actually promote peace, say optimists. The prospect of nuclear war is so terrifying that no nation dares provoke it — both sides would be obliterated. As an aide to Khrushchev once said, ‘it is impossible to win a nuclear war’ — and no government will ever start a war that it cannot win. This is why there has been no world war since the last nuclear weapon was used.
Times have changed, reply pessimists. Nowadays, our deadliest foes are terrorist groups like Islamic State; they are irrational and, having no borders, cannot really be destroyed in turn by a bomb. What if they get their own nuclear weapons? And then there is human error: the fact that a disaster has yet to be triggered accidentally is ‘plain dumb luck’. Do not be deluded: nuclear weapons do not make us safer.
- Is nuclear war the greatest threat to mankind today?
- Can the use of a nuclear weapon ever be justified? If so, under what circumstances?
- Imagine you are part of the crew manning a Trident submarine. You have to spend three months at sea. Draw up a list of items that you cannot do without.
- Read the Politico article under Become An Expert. Now imagine you are the prime minister. Write a letter of last resort, in which you set out how you think Trident should be used — if at all — in case of an attack.
Some People Say...
“It’s a near miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided.”Noam Chomsky
What do you think?
Q & A
- Should I be scared?
- Experts strongly disagree on whether nuclear war is likely to break out. On the one hand, nuclear engineer William J Perry warns that ‘nuclear doom’ is closer than ever. On the other, political scientist Kenneth Waltz argues that if this was ever going to happen, it would have done so during the Cold War. What’s for sure is that Britain’s renewal of Trident hasn’t suddenly increased the risk of war.
- Why does Britain keep its missiles on submarines?
- The point of the deterrent is that it can launch an attack even if the country’s conventional defence systems have been destroyed. Hence submarines, which are removed from the mainland and whose location can’t easily be detected. Each of their 215-odd warheads is about ten times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan.
- Such is the secrecy surrounding the so-called letter of last resort that we do not know for sure when Theresa May wrote it. But traditionally writing it is one of the first duties of a prime minister.
- Particularly the Labour Party, split roughly down the middle on the issue.
- Costs and jobs
- The government has set aside £41 billion to build the new fleet. Anti-nuclear organisation Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) estimates the total running costs for the fleet’s 32-year lifespan at £205 billion. Some 30,000 jobs depend on the operation of Trident.
- Nuclear nations
- See our graphic. Another four nations — Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and South Africa — possessed nuclear weapons, but have given them up.
- Nikita Khrushchev led the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964.
- The USA dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 which together killed up to 220,000 people. These are the only instances of nuclear weapons being used in war.
- Plain dumb luck
- The words used by former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson to explain why nuclear war had not yet happened.