Nonsense at the heart of Britain's 'independent' nuclear defence
A secret review into the future of our nuclear deterrent is underway - and it's time to face some home truths
FINGERS on buzzers - your starter for ten. In the phrase 'British independent nuclear deterrent' – how many of the words are actually true? Just one, in fact – 'nuclear'. The rest are baloney.
The system is certainly not British: the 58 Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles operated by the Royal Navy (from four Vanguard-class submarines) are as American as Dolly Parton and apple pie. The Americans make them, maintain them and provide the satellite intelligence to target them.
This also means the system is not independent, obviously. No one knows for sure, but it's probably not independent in an even starker sense. The Americans certainly believe that the system belongs to them rather than to the Brits.
According to a US diplomatic telegram released by WikiLeaks last year, President Obama handed over the unique serial numbers of the UK's missiles to the Russians as part of an arms reduction deal, despite the strong objections of Her Majesty's Government. As a result the Russians now know exactly what we have got and what it can do. Sucking up to Putin is clearly more important than the 'independence' of the British deterrent.
Given the complexities of the US designed electronics and computer programmes embedded in every aspect of the Trident system it seems unlikely that a British prime minister could launch them – unless the US President gives his own authorisation. If David Cameron ever had to press the button a light might flash on President Obama's bedside Teasmade but that would be all.
Even if you buy into the theology of deterrence, this means that the system has little deterrent value. Intelligence officials in Beijing or Tehran must know this. I am surprised President Kirchner of Argentina hasn't used it in her recent bitchy exchanges on the Falklands.
Is this what the country needs in an uncertain world? Our last line of defence is a bluff that cost the taxpayer in 1994 £14.9 billion (in 2005 prices) and costs another £2 billion a year to run.
The missiles will be good for many years yet but the submarines carrying them were only designed to last 25 years and so will have to be replaced by 2020 at a probable cost of £25 billion.
The decision will have to be made by the coalition government, which is currently awaiting the results of a secret review of our nuclear deterrent needs.
The Liberal Democrats to their credit have come up with an alternative and cunning plan. Why not build, say, three extra Astute Class hunter-killer submarines (nuclear powered but not currently nuclear armed) and equip them with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles? It would cut the cost of replacing Trident by half.
There are military disadvantages to cruise missiles. They don't have the range of ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles) so the submarine has to sail closer to the target, increasing the risk of detection. Travelling at the speed of a commercial jet-liner they are also much slower and easier to shoot down.
And there would still be one major snag – all the missiles would still come from the United States and only the Americans currently produce a suitable warhead. Still the Liberal Democrats are on to a winner - a £12 billion bluff offers better value than a £25 billion one.
As currently constituted, our deterrent is more of a status symbol, a designer accessory to bolster the status of British politicians and admirals rather than a convincing weapons system. It's the last bauble from a lost Empire.
The mystique of nuclear weapons surrounds the office of prime minister. On entering 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, David Cameron's first action, excitedly reported on television and in the press, was to sign 'letters of last resort' - his personal instructions to the captains of our four Trident-equipped submarines in the event that the government can no longer function after a nuclear attack on the UK.
Some suggest that these orders tell any surviving subs to sail to Australia as in Neville Shute's 1957 novel On the Beach where exactly this happens after the UK is destroyed in a nuclear war. But no one knows.
It would make a great episode of Yes, Prime Minister. Politicians and civil servants conspiring as ever to bamboozle the long-suffering British public. Except it's more important than that.
The original decision to go nuclear was taken just after the war by politicians and officials deeply shocked by our narrow escape from invasion in 1940. They wanted a last ditch back-up in case anything similar happened again. From then until 1998, when the last aircraft-delivered nukes were dropped from the inventory, we did enjoy the protections - such as they were - of an 'independent' system.
One critic of Trident has called it the UK's 'stick-on hairy chest'. My view is that we need such a thing in an uncertain and dangerous world. But we need one that can be stuck on, in extremis, by a British prime minister.