By Julian Lewis, Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee
Bright Blue – 2018
In June 1945, Professor Sir Henry Tizard and other top military scientists secretly reported on the impact on future warfare of new weapons systems. They explained why – if the atomic bomb actually worked – the only protection against it would be the ability to retaliate:
“A knowledge that we were prepared, in the last resort, to do this might well deter an aggressive nation. Duelling was a recognised method of settling quarrels between men of high social standing so long as the duellists stood twenty paces apart and fired at each other with pistols of a primitive type. If the rule had been that they should stand a yard apart with pistols at each other’s hearts, we doubt whether it would long have remained a recognised method of settling affairs of honour.”
Tizard’s analogy correctly identified the two central features of successful military deterrence: that the consequences of aggression must be unacceptable, but that they must also be unavoidable.
Since 1969, the UK’s ability to inflict such retaliation has been continuously guaranteed by the Royal Navy’s Polaris and Trident missile submarines. The present Vanguard class will eventually be succeeded by the new Dreadnought class, currently under construction. The Parliamentary majority for initiating this programme was 248 in March 2007, rising to a massive 355 when the final decision was taken on 18 July 2016. Such a huge majority demonstrated that most Labour MPs remained committed to renewing Trident, despite the installation of CND stalwart Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.
Having debated the pros-and-cons of nuclear deterrence with countless unilateralists, including Jeremy, for nearly forty years, I have had plenty of time to formulate my case succinctly – and here it is:
a) Future military threats and conflicts will be no more predictable than those which engulfed us throughout the Twentieth Century. This is why we keep 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 President Truman 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.
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Trident is not a panacea and is not designed to forestall every type of threat. Its mission is unchanged: to minimize the prospect of the United Kingdom being attacked by mass-destruction weapons. It is the ultimate ‘stalemate weapon’ – and, in the nuclear age, stalemate is the most reliable source of security available to us all.