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What is Trident?

Why the government should bide its time over the UK's nuclear deterrent

By Oliver Postgate

I ask this seemingly simple question while the White Paper on its proposed renewal is being published, because, quite frankly, I don’t think many of the people discussing the subject really know what Trident is, or rather, what it is for.

What Trident consists of is well known. Britain and the US have sets of submarines which take turns to go out and lurk under the oceans where they can’t be got at. These carry long-range nuclear missiles which could deliver nothing less than total destruction to any part of the world.

Oddly enough, these utterly horrifying devices originally came into the world, not in order to destroy, but to make it safer. Their purpose was, and still is, to discourage nations from threatening to ‘use’ nuclear devices as if they were weapons of war.

Thus Trident is not in any sense a weapon, it is solely a deterrent. If it were ever to be used as if it were a weapon, it would have failed in its single purpose. But equally, if its missiles were no longer there, there would be nothing to stop any nation making some and attempting to hold the world to ransom. To stop that happening is what Trident is for.

So although, to help end the Nuclear Arms Race and the Cold War, it fell to Britain and the US to bring Trident into existence, the fact that they look after them is unimportant because the Trident submarines are essentially nothing more than a confirmation of the validity of the policy of nuclear/nuclear deterrence, which is something completely different from conventional deterrence in that its only purpose is to prevent the unleashing of global suicide .

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Today, in a world where access to the so-called ‘nuclear option’ is increasingly seen by ambitious nations as being the holy grail of military and political domination, their continued presence is a silent confirmation that such ambitions are a part of madness. And thank God for that.

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However, this madness is not confined to the excitable ambitious nations. The fact that they are still called ‘weapons’ of mass destruction is a testament to the fact that even among the superpowers, the penny has still not dropped.

Even after half a century and the insane decades of the Cold War, the military strategists and power-politicians have still not realised that the things can not be classified as weapons (simply because if they were ever to be used as such, everything that was being fought for would be destroyed. Q.E.D).

But nevertheless, I fear we can expect to see, in the days to come, that Trident’s future will be being discussed in military/strategic terms as if it really forms part of the West’s security and conventional armament and that, although it can only provide mutual suicide or mass destruction, Trident is now regarded as being the ultimate back-stop of conventional conflict.

Of course it is, unfortunately, possible that the United States (and, inevitably, Great Britain) have betrayed the ethos of nuclear deterrence and the trust of the world in that they have come to see nuclear-based weapons as potentially having a military role. For years they have been refining the processes and have produced numerous specialised ‘nukes’, many of which have low ‘yields’, some perhaps even less than the one that destroyed Hiroshima. While claiming that these nuclear ‘weapons’ are held passively as “a last resort deterrent”, they have been quietly allotting strategic military roles to them.

We, who live in the affluent West, cannot imagine them ever being put to that purpose. But other nations, less convinced of our benevolence, may, to put it delicately, not share that confidence, and perhaps that makes it understandable that they might feel a need to be able to threaten massive nuclear retaliation on their own account.

The obvious lesson from this is that for us to introduce any ‘nuclear elements’, however minor, into our military arsenals is essentially a betrayal of the policy that has somehow kept the world safe from suicide for fifty years, ie, nuclear deterrence.

To allow this to happen makes hypocritical nonsense of our righteous attempts to discourage proliferation and directly invites other nations to follow suit, an invitation which could trip the world back into a new growth of nuclear threat and counter-threat, or even unleash the escalation to mutual suicide that would follow the use of so-called ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons.

So, for what it’s worth, my feeling is that it is too soon to start deciding the fate of Trident. It is still doing its job. It is still technically in good order, and the next few years will give the world a chance to find out whether or not deterrence is in fact being betrayed and whether North Korea and Iran have reason for what now seems to be a madness. Or whether perhaps, at last, common-sense has crept into international power-politics and Trident could really be seen as being surplus to requirements.

© Oliver Postgate
December 2006.