The Truth About Trident

Blog by Elizabeth Ingrams

The Truth About Trident sets out a blow-by-blow detailed analysis in advance of the forthcoming parliamentary debate about the renewal of Britain’s nuclear weapons’ system known as the ‘main gate’ decision later this year.

Despite the slightly disingenuous claim of the book that it will act as an objective ‘trial’ of the 30-year-old weapons system, Tim Wallis’s credentials as a leading peace activist reverses this expectation. As he states his intention is that ‘the moral case [will] outweigh lesser arguments based on finances, jobs, politics, strategic interests and deterrence and so on.’Mock Trident submarine protests at AWE Burghfield, June 2016

Laid out in a reader-friendly way, the book steers us through key headings such as, What is Trident? What is Radiation? Have Nuclear Weapons kept the peace? Is Trident Affordable? But Wallis does sum up the conclusion of the book in the introduction. ‘What we are left with is a weapon system that is not powerful at all but is extremely dangerous.’

Wallis’ approach is to pick apart the main shibboleths of the Trident argument and in doing so, he hopes to reveal the irrationality of arguing, for instance, that nuclear weapons have kept the peace for the past 70 years.

Wallis refutes the long held supporting myth that it was the atomic bombs, rather than the Soviet invasion of China and Japan which ended the Second World War. He also refutes the idea that nuclear weapons kept Europe safe from expansionist Russians (Soviets as they were known then). Wallis reminds us that Truman and Churchill were complicit in allowing the USSR to occupy Eastern Europe as a buffer against any future German expansion and that many more millions of people have died as a result of armed conflict since the Second World War than during the war itself. Thus, the possession of nuclear weapons has not managed to stop war, let alone ‘keep the peace.’ 

In fact, as a counter-argument, looking at India and Pakistan, it is clear that a period of relative peace between the two countries came to an end when both became nuclear armed in 1998. Wallis itemizes how frequently the world has been brought to the brink of nuclear war or accidents involving nuclear weapons since 1945. As Robert McNamara, former hawk and Vietnam War head of the Pentagon told us, it was sheer luck that we have not experienced another nuclear bomb event since 1945.

Wallis highlights the fact that, in terms of nuclear safety, last year’s Strategic Defence Review showed that, despite the mythology of deterrence, the UK is not threatened in terms of nuclear weapons at the moment because, unlike Iran, it is not surrounded by nuclear-armed potential enemies. However the UK is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, a threat which is impossible to deter with nuclear weapons. Arguably, possession of nuclear weapons makes us vulnerable to the effects of nuclear weapons, as nuclear convoys travel up and down Britain exposing us daily to terrorist attack, meanwhile the UK’s nuclear manufacturing operations could be hacked. In the US, cyber warfare has caused at least three nuclear facilities in the US to be closed down, meanwhile hundreds of nuclear accidents occur in nuclear facilities each year.

Despite this, nuclear thinking still prevails, as I discovered when talking about my research on nuclear war survivors last summer on the BBC. 

Wallis is strong on the moral arguments. The thinking of the 1980s and 1990s has the upper hand here, including moral arguments put forward by prominent Roman Catholics and Church of England bishops, despite the pope’s concerted antinuclear stance. But, according to the Strategic Defence Review conducted last year, most military chiefs see the Trident nuclear weapons system as militarily useful only as an ‘insurance policy’. In even the most unlikely scenario – for instance, if Russia was to threaten us with nuclear weapons, the UK would only act as an ally of the US who possess so many of the dirty bombs as to make our supply entirely superfluous.

Having provided exhaustive facts on nuclear issues, Wallis finally asks why do we still hang on to these 215 warheads which are to be renewed this year? The answer is one of perception rather than reality. It is perceived that possession of nuclear weapons makes a country eligible for membership of the security council. Wallis is perhaps too dismissive of the fact that nuclear weapons appear to be a guarantee of membership of the P5 (permanent five members of the UN security council). Although it may not have been a requirement back when the UN charter was first sketched out, nevertheless each P5 member did coincidentally acquire nuclear weapons. 

In fact the P5 usually vote together against any discussion of nuclear issues. This seems to be one of the few things they agree on. It is for this reason that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970, fails to make progress as it is a treaty without any concrete end goals or dates in place. Therefore, in its current form, the NPT is nothing but a system for maintaining ‘business as usual’ or changing the deckchairs on the Titanic, and the fact that very little else is agreed on at the P5 level surely begs a question about the P5’s legitimacy in any case. 

Although this information is officially secret the likely yield of a single warhead is 100 kilotons so the potential damage from firing from the full set of 40 warheads loaded on a nuclear submarine is therefore untold – a large multiple of the damage seen at Hiroshima. The nuclear fall-out would amount to around 38 million tonnes of soot leading to widespread climate change. At the moment Trident is detargeted but it could be quickly be retargeted and, as it was three decades ago, its target would be Moscow, with a death toll estimated at a minimum of 5.5 million, mostly civilians.

This is what would happen if the UK were to use nuclear weapons. For one thing that military experts agree is that Trident only works as a deterrent if a leader is prepared to use it. 

For most young people however the prospect of using nuclear weapons seems so remote it must seem like ancient history. The harsh reality is we continue to frame our security around a weapon which is world-destroying rather than militarily-useful. Logically, if the human race is to survive, one of the nuclear-armed states will have to break ranks to disarm as Wallis demonstrates, however the UK isn’t even engaged in multilateral talks on disarmament. 

Currently 128 countries are negotiating a nuclear ban at the UN, but none of the nuclear weapons states, let alone the P5 are in attendance. Non-attendance, in view of our international commitments could be deemed to be illegal. So, why does the UK still hold on to those 215 nuclear warheads? Why are all political leaders so mealy-mouthed about the UK's best-kept secret? What is Trident really about? Who will you back when parliament votes in its so-called ‘main gate’ decision? Read this excellent book and then discuss.