Last week Tim Montgomerie floated the idea that Trident might now be too expensive for Britain. Yesterday Gordon Brown suggested that Britain's nuclear deterrent could be part of a multilateral agreement on disarmament. Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East, and shadow defence minister responsible for the nuclear deterrent argues that Britain still needs Trident.

These are very tough times for British defence planners. Years before the present economic crisis, the United Kingdom was fighting military campaigns on a peacetime Defence Budget. Increasingly this has led to inter-Service warfare for inadequate resources.

Yet, the case for retaining our nuclear deterrent is common ground between Government and Opposition, and attempts to revive unilateralism have failed to generate significant support, regardless of the end of the Cold War. This is due to a mixture of military and political factors.

The military argument

a)    Future military threats and conflicts will be no more predictable
than those which engulfed us throughout the Twentieth Century. This is
the overriding justification for preserving Armed Forces in peacetime
as a national insurance policy. No-one knows which enemies might
confront us during the next 30–50 years, but it is highly probable that
at least some of them will be armed with mass-destruction weapons.

b)    It is not the weapons themselves which we have to fear, but the
nature of the regimes which possess them. Whereas democracies are
generally reluctant to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear
dictatorships (though they did against Japan in 1945), the reverse is
not true. Think, for example, of a non-nuclear Britain in 1982 facing
an Argentina in possession of a few tactical nuclear bombs and the
means of delivering them.

c)    The United Kingdom traditionally has played a more important and
decisive role in preserving freedom than other medium-sized states have
been able or willing to do. Democratic countries without nuclear
weapons have little choice but to declare themselves neutral and hope
for the best, or to rely upon the nuclear umbrella of powerful allies.
The United Kingdom is a nuclear power already and is also much harder
to defeat by conventional means because of our physical separation from
the Continent.

d)    Our prominence as the principal ally of the United States, our
strategic geographical position, and the fact that we are obviously the
junior partner, might tempt an aggressor to risk attacking us
separately. Given the difficulty of overrunning the United Kingdom with
conventional forces, in contrast to our more vulnerable allies, an
aggressor could be tempted to use one or more mass-destruction weapons
against us, on the assumption that the United States would not reply on
our behalf. Even if that assumption were false, the attacker would find
out his mistake when, and only when, it was too late for all concerned.
An independently-controlled British nuclear deterrent massively reduces
the prospect of such a fatal miscalculation.

e)    No quantity of conventional forces can compensate for the
military disadvantage which faces a non-nuclear country in a war
against a nuclear-armed enemy. The atomic bombing of Japan is
especially instructive – not only because the Emperor was forced to
surrender, but also in terms of the reverse scenario: imagine if Japan
had developed atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 and the Allies had
not. An invasion to end the war would have been out of the question.

The political argument

a)    A large majority of the population consistently takes the view
that it is safer for the United Kingdom to retain nuclear weapons
whilst other countries have them, than it would be to renounce them

b)    In the 1980s, two General Elections demonstrated the toxic effect
of one-sided disarmament proposals on a party’s prospects of gaining

c)    It was, and remains, widely believed (i) that schemes for ‘mutual
understanding’ and disarmament after World War I, played into the hands
of dictators and helped pave the way for World War II; and (ii) that
the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War enabled all-out conflict between
the major powers to be avoided for fifty years, despite their mutual
hostility and in contrast to those regional theatres where communists
and their enemies could – and did – fight without fear of nuclear

d)    The ending of East-West confrontation has not altered the balance
of public opinion, because (i) it could easily re-emerge, and (ii)
unpleasant regimes are on the point of acquiring nuclear weapons and
some may already have done so.

Although a recent letter in the press, attacking British insistence on
‘a costly successor to Trident’, has brought a flicker of hope to the
deterrent’s traditional opponents, the combination of military and
political factors listed should, and probably will, continue to prevail.

The letter says little which is new, but has attracted attention
primarily because of the pedigree of the people who signed it. All
three are retired Generals – one of them, indeed, a former Chief of the
Defence Staff. Their arguments will not, however, change the
Government’s mind, nor that of the party which may presently supersede

Leading ‘by example’

Let us consider the components of the Generals’ case. They aver that
renewing our deterrent may undermine the objective of a world free from
nuclear weapons to which a variety of senior politicians and statesmen,
past and present, apparently subscribe. Renewal, it is claimed, may
‘actively encourage others to believe that nuclear weapons [are] still,
somehow, vital to the secure defence of self-respecting nations’.

Yet, few people believe that a British decision to renew Trident will
derail what would otherwise be a global agreement either to reduce
nuclear stockpiles or to eliminate them entirely. Ours is a minimum
strategic deterrent which has recently seen a reduction from a warhead
total of 200 to one of only 160. This is not the first time we have
taken such steps – without the least discernible reciprocation from any
other country. The notion that our replacing four ageing submarines
with four new ones, or a modest stockpile of warheads and missiles with
a similar number of upgraded ones, would drive a non-nuclear state into
the WMD business is utterly fanciful.

Nation-states operate according to hard-headed calculations of their
own strategic interests. During the Cold War, the advocates of
one-sided British nuclear disarmament were repeatedly challenged
actually to name a single, specific nuclear or near-nuclear country
which would abandon its quest for nuclear status in response to a
gesture by the United Kingdom. Not one example was ever offered by the
unilateralists, either then or subsequently. Yet, it is easy to
envisage the reverse scenario, where a country fearing conventional
conflict with the United Kingdom might redouble its efforts to obtain
mass-destruction weapons, in the knowledge that without their own
deterrent the British would be incapable of persisting with any


This leads to the second strand of the Generals’ case: that the UK
deterrent ‘cannot be seen as independent of the United States in any
meaningful sense’, since the missiles are provided by, and shared with
our American allies. According to this view, the United Kingdom should
rely exclusively on the US nuclear umbrella, because although we have
‘in theory, freedom of action over giving the order to fire, it is
unthinkable that, because of the catastrophic consequences for guilty
and innocent alike, these weapons would ever be launched, or seriously
threatened, without the backing and support of the United States’.

The role of our strategic nuclear force remains what it has always
been: to deter any power armed with mass-destruction weapons from using
them against us in the belief – true or false – that no-one would
retaliate on our behalf. The use of our deterrent consists of the
preventative effect it has on the behaviour of our enemies: the actual
launching of a Trident missile would mark the failure of deterrence and
would presuppose that a devastating attack had already been inflicted
on our country. In other words, the prospect of ‘catastrophic
consequences’, to which the Generals refer, would already have been
inflicted upon the United Kingdom.  Under such dreadful circumstances,
the aggressor would know that the British had nothing left to lose and
that is why he would be insane to attack us in the first place.

He would also know, as General Beach and his colleagues agree, that the
United States would be physically incapable of preventing us from
instantly retaliating (if, indeed, that is what the Prime Minister of
the day had decided to write in the submarine commander’s sealed
letter) in the unlikely event of the failure of deterrence. The fact
that over a period of months a US Government could, if it wished,
slowly disable our retaliatory capability, is neither here nor there.
This could not be done at the very short notice which would apply in
any crisis where the UK needed to neutralise a blackmailer or deter a
WMD attack.

‘But the Cold War is over’

Of course it is – and this is what really underlies the thinking of the
posse of Generals who have recently galloped into view. Because
strategic nuclear deterrence is largely irrelevant to the current
counter-insurgency campaigns which are stretching the British Army to
the limit, and because we are fighting wars on a peace-time Defence
Budget, some senior Army officers are suggesting that we must choose
between fighting what is called ‘the war’ of the present, rather than
insuring against the possibility of ‘a war’ of a different kind in the
indefinite future.

This choice is unacceptable, and the underlying message – that the era
of high-intensity state-on-state warfare is gone for good – is a
dangerous fallacy. Every sane individual hopes that such warfare will
never return; but to rely on this in the face of past experience would
be foolhardy in the extreme. The lesson of warfare in the Twentieth
Century, repeated time and again, was that when conflicts broke out
they usually took their victims by surprise. Obvious examples are the
failure to anticipate World War I, the follies of the ‘Ten-Year Rule’
from 1919 until the early 1930s, and the entirely unanticipated attacks
on Israel in 1973, the Falklands in 1982, Kuwait in 1990 and the United
States in 2001. Conversely, and on a brighter note, the speed with
which the Soviet Empire unravelled from 1989 left even its sternest
critics largely nonplussed.

Our present counter-insurgency campaigns are very important indeed, but
they cannot be compared with battles for the very survival of the
United Kingdom homeland. Such existential threats confronted us twice
in the past hundred years: if international relations deteriorate, they
could easily do so again.

A Lesson from the Eighties

The perceived lessons of disarmament during the inter-war years and
nuclear stalemate during the post-war era have, over time, become
embedded in the popular psyche. With the original decision to develop a
UK deterrent taken in strictest secrecy, there was little scope for
protest until its second generation was due.

The organised anti-nuclear movement thus came into being in the late
1950s. In the early 1960s its ‘first wave’ split the Labour Party, as
the V-bombers gave way to Polaris. In the early 1980s its ‘second wave’
worried NATO as Polaris gave way to Trident – and as five NATO states,
including the United Kingdom, accepted Intermediate-range Nuclear
Forces as part of a successful strategy to secure the removal of
Soviet SS20s.

Yet, throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, opinion polls regularly
showed two-thirds of the British public to be in favour of keeping
nuclear weapons as long as other countries had them, and only a quarter
in favour of unilateralism. Labour’s insistence on aligning itself with
the minority position in 1983 and 1987 is widely perceived as a major
factor in both those heavy General Election defeats – and that explains
why the party finally altered its policy in July 1991. The change was
engineered by the then Shadow Foreign Secretary Gerald Kaufman, and, in
March 2007, when Parliament voted by 409 to 161 to proceed with the
next generation of the nuclear deterrent, Sir Gerald reminded MPs of
his description of Labour’s 1983 anti-nuclear manifesto as ‘the longest
suicide note in history’, and the reasons for making the change:

That shift of policy removed an insuperable barrier to the Labour
Party's electoral credibility. Without it, many of my hon. Friends
would not be in this House today, including some who may be
contemplating voting against the Government this evening. Do those hon.
Friends really believe that our shared objective of world nuclear
disarmament can be achieved by unilateral disarmament by Britain? Do
they really believe that if we gave up Trident, the eight other nuclear
weapons powers would say, ‘Good old Britain! They have done the right
thing. We must follow suit.’? Pull the other one! … Defeating the
Government tonight … could so reduce our party's credibility as to
contribute to a Labour defeat at the next election … A cartoon in The
New Yorker once showed an Army officer in a bunker saying to his
assembled troops: ‘Gentlemen, the time has arrived for us to make a
futile gesture.’ Futile gestures can be personally satisfying, but what
do they get us? I will tell the House what they get us: 18 years in
opposition. It is one thing to revisit the scene of the crime; it is
quite another to revisit the scene of the suicide.

Why is unilateral British nuclear disarmament electoral suicide for any
would-be Government? Are so many British citizens simply deceiving
themselves by opting, in a nuclear-armed world, to be able to threaten
nuclear retaliation? Or is it that the common sense of ordinary people
has lessons to teach to retired Generals as well as to ambitious