'WE WOULD BE MAD TO ABANDON TRIDENT'

It's a small price for insurance against nuclear blackmail or attack

Mike Jackson and Julian Lewis

'Thunderer' Column

The Times – 22 January 2016

In October 1945, one of Britain’s leading defence scientists presented a paper to a committee of the Chiefs of Staff. It accurately predicted that atomic weapons would lead to a stalemate between the Great Powers:

“A nation may be prepared to use force,”

wrote Sir George Thomson,

“but not to the extent of accepting the almost certain destruction of most of its towns.”

After World War Two, this might

“bring a return to sanity  . . .  But no nation can hope for such a chance unless it has power of retaliation against probable rivals”.

Alice Thomson, Sir George’s granddaughter, suggested on these pages on Wednesday that Britain should consider alternatives to Trident while other countries continue to possess nuclear weapons. [NOTE: This is a Times alteration to what we wrote and a gloss on Ms Thomson's article, which was subtitled "Although my grandfather helped develop the Bomb and I supported deterrence, the argument no longer stacks up". JL] Her case fails to convince.

She refers to “spiralling costs”, lumping together every expense likely to be incurred over the lifetime of the system. Even if the total were £167 billion, this would still amount to less than a third of one per cent of Britain’s annual GDP, as Professor Paul Cornish of Rand Europe in Cambridge, a think tank, has calculated. This is a modest premium for the ultimate insurance policy against nuclear blackmail or attack.

The fact that today’s global threats differ from those of the Cold War tells us nothing about the dangers of the next 50 years – the anticipated lifespan of the next generation of Trident submarines. Consider the extraordinary changes that took place over just 15 years from 1986 to 2001. Anyone correctly predicting them in the mid-1980s would have been seen as delusionary.

We do not believe either that public opinion has “shifted dramatically since the Cold War”. Whenever asked:

“Should Britain continue to possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them?”

two-thirds of those polled always say Yes, and one-quarter always say No.

One can always find a few senior officers (usually from the Army), a tiny number of former Defence Secretaries (two) and Conservative MPs (one) who think the money would be better spent on conventional forces. The views of those quoted by Ms Thomson are untypical.

The British strategic deterrent is not a panacea, and is not designed to tackle terrorist threats. Yet the dangers it deters – state nuclear blackmail or attack – cannot be averted by any other means or any quantity of conventional forces alone.

General Sir Mike Jackson was Chief of the General Staff, 2003–2006; Julian Lewis MP is Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, writing in a personal capacity.