The nuclear deterrent

There have been lively exchanges between Mr Fox and the Treasury over paying for the renewal of Trident, according to the newspapers. I do not quite understand all these briefings. The outcome looks clear.

The Coalition government is committed to renewing Trident. Trident is a main programme of the MOD. The final settlement of money for the MOD will have to take Trident and all its other necessary commitments into account. Fortunately no-one plans to spend a penny let alone billions on missile replacement this Parliament. Any preliminary spending on new boats will build up gradually. The main spend will be spread over several years in due course.

A nuclear deterrent is a necssary evil. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) worked as a doctrine throughout the tense cold war. Huge arsenals of weapons remained unused. Now they are being reduced and dismantled by successive rounds of disarmament agreement between the main nuclear powers. The UK has been in the forefront of reductions.

Unfortunately as the main traditional nuclear powers become more enamoured of a sensible and desirable reduction in these weapons, the technology of mass destruction spreads to ever more states, and leaves open the possibility that it could also spread to terrorist organisations or informal armies in search of a state.

As the range of states with nuclear weapons enlarges, the main parties running the UK will conclude they need to keep an up to date deterrent. It will be accomodated somehow within the overall MOD budget and is not the main issue we should be concentrating on when reviewing MOD spending.


  1. Mike Stallard
    August 8, 2010

    Have you ever read histories of Islam? Terrifying that sensible people in Iran should think stuff like that. What about Kim Jong Il – "I'm so wronely?" (South Park). What about Pakistan and the SIS? I wonder what the martyr bros are thinking now – one suitcase in the underground?
    "The pike in the European fishpond have prevented us becoming carp" – Bismarck.
    Or perhaps the UN will intervene? (Ahem!)

    1. Iain Gill
      August 8, 2010

      South Park? Team America is the better example

    2. Stuart Fairney
      August 8, 2010

      What do sensible people in Iran think like ? (I know quite a few personally and am curious as to your take on the situation).

      The whole "terrorists will get a nuke" theory is utterly nonsensical BECAUSE whoever gives 'em one will be dead, along with the 50 surrounding miles, five minutes later.

      They know this and rather like positions of power and influence, ergo terrorists won't get a nuke.

      1. Mark
        August 9, 2010

        Read The Fourth Protocol. The perfect terrorist nuke scenario. I was actually pleasantly surprised to find that a radioactive cancer patient was sufficient to trigger the Geiger counters at Dover the other day.

        1. Stuart Fairney
          August 10, 2010

          Setting asided the utter ludicrousness of the premise, the nuclear deterrent would never stop such a scenario anyway.

          The fundamental truth remains, if terrorists ever suceed in getting a nuke and not leaving a trail, the deterrent is pointless, but the risk of leaving a trail is so great, no-one would ever do it.

  2. Lindsay McDougall
    August 8, 2010

    But MAD was abandoned in its pure form by Robert McNamara in JFK's time. Only Eisenhower's people believed that the possession of a nuclear deterrent presented the opportunity to reduce conventional defence expenditure. McNamara recognised that they had to be prepared to fight a major conventional war against the Warsaw Pact forces over a prolonged period without either party being prepared to use their nuclear weapons. He built up America's conventional forces (and then used them in Vietnam, but hat's another story).

    What is ironic is that maybe it was all unnecessary. The Warsaw Pact forces were more focused on internal repression within the USSR empire than on attacking the West.

    1. Stuart Fairney
      August 8, 2010

      No, no,no and no. Whilst the soviet forces did indeed repress their allies, you don't need 20,000 tanks to do that. The soviet army was designed as an offensive shock army, not a police force.

  3. Kevin Peat
    August 8, 2010

    If the threat of instantaneous death is deemed to be such an effective deterrent might I ask why we abolished capital punisment ?

    I don't doubt you're right on the need for an up-to-date deterrent. My only issue is that I no longer recognise – or much like – the country we're supposed to be defending. It certainly doesn't seem to like me very much. (You and I know that I speak for millions)

    1. Mike Stallard
      August 8, 2010

      What an astute comment! As the Metropolitan elite goes further and further up its own navel, we, in the rest of the country are feeling more and more like foreigners in what used once to be our own land.
      Death penalty? I am all for it!

  4. Martin
    August 8, 2010

    A defence review is clearly needed.

    As a country we have drifted back over the years into all sorts of conflicts east of Suez. You have mentioned elsewhere in this blog the rise of China, India and others. If (and it is a big if) we are to continue east of Suez then we need to take account of these countries views.

    Is MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) still a valid concept when dealing with some regimes in the Middle East who might see this sort of thing as a "desirable sacrifice"?

    Re Trident – I still think we are heading down the road of country with a nuclear deterrent and little more than a home guard to defend us.

    I can't help but think that we need a foreign policy review to go with the defence review. The last Labour government took being America's poodle to new depths. What did this get us – a Nine Pound entry charge! (Suggestion to hard up Treasury – start charging Americans!)

    1. Stuart Fairney
      August 8, 2010

      some regimes in the Middle East who might see this sort of thing as a "desirable sacrifice"?

      Which ones and why?

      Also, yes to tit-for-tat charging and finger print the (moderator will block the word) likewise

  5. Tim
    August 8, 2010

    Renewing Trident is a waste of money. If anybody is foolish enough to drop a nuclear bomb on us, dropping one on the dropper won't help us any. Would America do nothing? Is any "wicked" country thinking about dropping a bomb on us going to know for a fact that we can't drop one on them? We could keep with the oldest system and they still can't be sure. We could even declare that we have renewed Trident, but don't. National security and all that.

    Like I said, a complete waste of money

  6. jedibeeftrix
    August 8, 2010

    The Trident question matters because in making this decision Osborne has created the perfect storm for Defence. Defence has fallen as a priority for government spending since the end of the cold war, falling below the 2.5% threshold considered by Labour to be the sensible minimum at the same time as being tasked with fighting two wars for nearly a decade, during which there has been no reduction in the number of responsibilities the Armed Forces are expected to carry out. In addition to this the Gray report found that the equipment in the procurement pipeline necessary to carry out these tasks was unfunded to the tune of £35 billion over the next decades, and now there is a further £20 billion to be found over a similar time-period to fund the Trident replacement. Bear in mind that the Defence budget itself is only £36 billion a year, and that austerity cuts of around £6 billion (17%) are expected are expected over the course of the coming parliament.

    Trident is a political tool that threatens to send a wrecking ball through conventional defence capability if Defence has to pay for it at the same time as suffer 17% cuts in its budget.

  7. redcliffe62
    August 8, 2010

    There is only one world, and what we have in weaponry is more than sufficient to blow the world up and threaten others.
    Getting more weapons when the world has a finite size seems pointless to me, because having more can only retain the same threat level of, annihilation.
    Being newer and shinier is not an issue.

  8. alan wheatley
    August 8, 2010

    Military might, as diplomacy by another means, clearly worked in the case of the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. Despite the large loss of life, it has been convincingly argued that bringing the war with Japan to an end by conventional means would have cost many more lives. One generation on the Japanese could consider themselves to have come out of the whole sorry affair rather well.

    So given the effectiveness of nuclear weapons as a proven means of diplomacy it is no wonder many others fancy the same capability. We need to stay ahead of the game, and rightly so too as no reasonable thinking country in the World has anything to fear from us on this score.

    Fund it by the most appropriate means.

  9. DBC Reed
    August 8, 2010

    As the current military threat seems to be from terrorist organisations how is a Trident missile launched from a ship going to hit them and not cause a lot of collateral civilian deaths?

  10. forthurst
    August 8, 2010

    So Trident comes with no strings attached? We could attack whoever or whenever we like? Supposing the USA were subject to a coup d'etat such that it was no longer governed under its own constitution, could we be able to attack the USA?

    Our nuclear warheads are maintained by a US company; do we actualy control them? Would we be able to deploy them in emergency without their foreknowledge?

    A nuclear deterrent exists not only to deter actual attack but also the threat of attack, ie nuclear blackmail. The geopolitical climate could change a lot faster than we could develop a credible alternative nuclear weapons system.

    Do we even want a nuclear weapon if there is any possibilty consequently that someone called Miliband could get his hands on the red button?

    Do we have the capability of other platforms such as sea or air launched cruise missiles?

    1. Stuart Fairney
      August 11, 2010

      Er, the USA is no longer governed under its own constitution right now, today.

  11. Kevin Lohse
    August 8, 2010

    "Trident is a main programme of the MOD. "
    Dear John. Trident , since it's inception, has never been an MOD programme, but has always been under the control and command of the Cabinet Office.
    Trident has always been funded outwith the MOD budget, and I am somewhat surprised that a man of your experience would suggest anything else.

  12. Jonathan Tee
    August 8, 2010

    Hi John. Under what scenarios do you think you would use the nuclear deterrent if you were Prime Minister?

    You've mentioned several potential originators of a nuclear attack:

    Rogue military forces

    I'd be interested to know how you would deploy Trident missiles in response to an attack by each of these.
    Reply: The deterrent has worked for many years, which is as it should be. It works all the time be just being there.

  13. zorro
    August 8, 2010

    You are correct that these costs are spread over a long period and I cannot see why the Chancellor has seemingly insisted (according to the media) that it should be part of the MOD budget review / cut agenda. Why would we unilaterally get rid of or not maintain this weapon….? In strict political terms, it allows us to punch above our weight and keep our seat at the UN (another reason why we should not be absorbed into an EU seat) and deters threats, or at least has done and more than likely would do in the future. I agree that the terrorist scenario does not give so much assurance, but is still not an argument to get rid of it.

    Defence and border security is non negotiable and I am not impressed by coalition efforts at rationalising how they will maintain that with the budget cuts that they propose……still no chance of renegotiating contributions to the EU, I guess….or looking at 'foreign aid', or reviewing the bureaucracy in the NHS….


  14. Kevin Peat
    August 8, 2010

    My train was – yet again – delayed by cable theft. Manhole covers are going missing throughout the country. The price of metal has gone through the roof. All because of demand from China.

    The fact is that they are taking us apart bit by bit. There will be no need for them to attack us in order to render us defenceless. It's being done by stealth and by our own – state sponsored – underclass.

    1. Alan Jutson
      August 9, 2010


      Yes, and then the Russians turn off the Gas. The French turn off the Power, and who knows turns off the Water.

      1. Simon
        August 10, 2010

        Well we can address the water issue without building desalination plants (which we won't have the energy to run) but I do take your point about utilities being under foreign ownership .

        Has the selling off of utilities has been of any benefit to the average UK citizen ?

        At current rates of consumption and downwards trend in North Sea production the costs of importing our oil and gas could well exceed the current budget deficit within as little as 10 years .

        Not sure where are we going to find another 200billion/year from . Can't expect our oil and gas providers to keep the taps open when we've got nothing to pay them with .

  15. jedibeeftrix
    August 8, 2010

    @ forthurst – r.e. whether the yanks can press a "no" button.

    It is called independence of operation as opposed to independence of acquisition, and it is perfectly adequate for Britain's deterrence needs.

  16. Trev
    August 8, 2010

    I believe that polaris and trident have been funded from within the defence budget. As to it ever being fired then that is the decision of the Prime Minister. It does not bean the funding comes from outside the defence budget.

    The likely replacement for trident which we would have to buy from the US is likely to be too big and powerful for pour needs.
    We should look at more suitable alternatives.

    Plus the current trident can be extended quite a bit further. No need to jump just yet.

  17. Cath
    August 10, 2010

    The briefings between the Treasury and MOD are rather odd, it’s as if there had never been a discussion between them prior to a couple of weeks ago, quite extraordinary.

    As an MP close to the action it may be clear to you that we are committed to keeping Trident, but to the guy on the street it doesn’t appear as clear cut as this.

    Even though costs for Trident may not hit the cashflow in this parliament, if the costs are to come from the overall defence budget the implications will be severe.

    The lead time for armoured vehicles, helicopters, eurofighters, are so long that the MOD will cease ordering this equipment now.

  18. Blank Xavier
    August 11, 2010

    > Mutually assured destruction (MAD) worked as a doctrine throughout
    > the tense cold war.

    William Odom (US General, retired, now deceased) in "The Collapse of the Soviet Military" made what I found to be a convincing argument that MAD did not work. MAD was perceived in the West as working; in fact, it was a complete failure on our part to perceive the Soviet view.

    The Soviets, in the event of war, expected it to be fully atomic and expected to fight that war with land forces and win. MAD did not connect at their end. The Wet went along, assuming MAD was protecting us.

    (As a related aside; an argument is made that what won the Cold War was Mr. Reagan's military build up, Star Wars in particular. The USA could afford it. The USSR could not; they could not feed themselves and compete militarily. Decades of devoting something like 40% of GDP to the military finally failed when the Soviets had to face funding both nuclear weapons and an advanced nuclear defence. The West won by an economic victory; the free market defeated centralization).

  19. Cary
    August 11, 2010

    By not including the issue of the nuclear deterrent in the Strategic Defence Review, the government is preventing some serious thinking on this matter. There are two fundamental questions the SDR would ask on this matter: do we need a nuclear deterrent? If so, what system best meets the country’s defence needs?

    The case for a nuclear deterrent is not as strong as when the USSR existed, as there is currently no country with the warhead, delivery system and motivation to launch a nuclear strike on this country. The nuclear deterrent is useless against a suicide attack with a dirty bomb, as this would not be initiated by another state against whom a retaliatory strike could be launched. The argument for keeping the deterrent is as an insurance policy against future developments, a reasonable argument but not an overwhelming one.

    1. Cary
      August 11, 2010

      Part 2!

      What system should we have? Any ground or air launched system may be liable to destruction before missiles are launched; a submarine based missile with at least one sub on patrol at all times is the most credible option. Trident fills the role but it’s an expensive solution, designed to hit Moscow, a city presumed to have a sophisticated anti ballistic missile defence system. Our eight nuclear powered subs could carry nuclear armed cruise missiles, at a fraction of the cost of Trident, and this is an option worthy of serious consideration.

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