Nicholas Mazzei is a former Army Officer who now works for BT.
The debate on Trident’s replacement in our party has, frankly, been terrible. In fact, it could hardly be called a debate, as we have simply assumed that replacing Trident is a necessity. I’m going to argue not only that we need a better debate on the issue; I’m going to stand up and say: “we no longer need nuclear weapons”.
I want to make it clear that this has nothing to do with pacifism. The Corbynistas opposition to Trident, being ideologically based rather than on any pragmatic argument, is poorly constructed and leaves no options for protecting Britain from future strategic threats.
But let’s start with the basics. In 2013, the Royal United Services Institute estimated that a new system would cost between £70 billion and £80 billion for its lifetime and would need to be ready to take over from the current generation of submarines and missiles around 2030. The argument for the deterrent is that there are many countries which are a threat to the UK and are, or aspire to be, nuclear states. An unstable Pakistan, a dangerous North Korea or a regionally powerful Iran are all potential threats to the UK, and therefore a nuclear deterrent is necessary.
The problem with this argument is that nuclear weapons are not only generally useless - since their use would be likely to provoke the destruction of the nation who uses them as well as the one against which they are used – but that nuclear weapons are last generation’s weapons. They are not a weapon of the 21st century, and should be consigned to history, along with strategic bombing, chemical and biological warfare.
By 2030, technology and cyber space will have changed warfare to such an extent that spending billions of pounds on nuclear weapons will look practically pre-historic. The 2015 National Security Strategy itself recognises this, but Britain’s Armed Forces have not geared themselves towards focusing on cyber threats and new, high-end technologies. Cyber warfare is already becoming a critical activity: for example, the Stuxnet virus, which destroyed Iranian centrifuges and held back the development of their nuclear programme, was a more effective weapon than any Special Forces operative or missile. Powerful cyber defences will be needed to protect power plants, trains, aircraft and communications equipment. The defence of our financial centres will be critical, as any damage to them could destroy Britain’s economy.
Then there is the development of the ‘internet of things’ – the billions of devices connecting our homes, cars, laptops, smartphones and places of work. Even our kettle, our fridge and our TV will communicate with each other. This environment is at huge risk of infiltration by hackers, and any good hacker will tell you that, to penetrate a secure environment, you only need to find one weakness in the network to get access.
It might scare you to know that the vulnerability could be the blue tooth connection in your pace maker. Nikolas Katsimpras, in his future warfare article Coffee, Wi-Fi and the Moon, discussed a war beginning in 2020 through the assassination of Vladimir Putin by the hacking of his pacemaker. While I would never encourage assassination, we must have a cyber defence capability capable of preventing such actions against our own leaders. There are other technologies which are also of growing importance. Swarms of micro-drones are one – objects as as small as insects, but able to penetrate and destroy enemy installations, including nuclear weapon sites. Why spend billions on weapons that could be rendered useless by drones costing a few thousand pounds, or by a hacker thousands of miles away who has infiltrated the computer system with an advanced virus?
If I haven’t convinced you yet, there’s an even more terrifying technology that is in development. Nano-technology, the ability to build molecular machines, could rewrite your DNA or literally eat organic or metallic material. It could target people with certain genes, wipe out every human in a country, and then self-destruct after a certain period of time, allowing an enemy to occupy territory unopposed. A nuclear deterrent would be of no use at all against these threats. This isn’t science fiction: this technology has been in development for years and is beginning to mature.
Spending £80 billion on weapons so cumbersome that any use would end civilisation as we know it is illogical. It reflects an arrogant desire to remain on the ‘top table’ of states, able to compete militarily against Russia and China. But both have as little interest in nuclear conflict as we do. Even if North Korea or a rogue Pakistan threatened the UK with nuclear weapons, we wouldn’t need the USA to come to our aid. China and Russia have as much to lose economically from nuclear conflict as everyone else. The threat of nuclear war after the Second World War existed in the wake of Russia and China’s experience of destruction in their country. In 2030, these countries will have no memory of surviving such destruction and the population, used to living in relative luxury, will have no desire to endure such horrors.
The last argument is that the USA would want Britain to retain its deterrent. But a Britain which uses that £80 billion more wisely could develop exceptionally powerful cyber capabilities, and become a true cyber super power. It could also invest better in its conventional forces, improving an army that is barely scraping 75,000 soldiers at the moment. Furthermore, Britain is listed as the number one soft power nation in the world; this is not to be dismissed. With globalisation and inter-locked financial markets, the ability to influence puts Britain truly at the top table of power. This is of far more use to the USA than a UK with a useless deterrent.
Some of all this may seem far-fetched – and I haven’t even got into the subject of laser technology. It will be claimed that nano-technology is a dream and cyber threats will disappear. I disagree. The future of warfare will not be nuclear: it’ll be fought by robot soldiers so tiny we can’t see them and fought on the internet (I could argue the internet is already the most important battle-space). So we have a choice. Go backwards – replace Trident and waste an opportunity. Or go forwards, and become a true super-power of global influence in 2025. My vote is for the latter.