ConservativeHome interview – 13 March 2007
True to his promise to support the Government when it did the right thing, David Cameron will lead Tory MPs into the same lobby as Tony Blair tomorrow when the Commons debates the replacement of Trident. In the post below, Julian Lewis MP, shadow defence minister, answers questions posed by ConservativeHome's Samuel Coates about the need to renew Britain's nuclear deterrent ...
Samuel Coates: Our principal threat is from an asymmetrical network of terrorists not a superstate. Is it therefore wise to be spending £23bn on nuclear missiles when our army is "running hot"?
Julian Lewis MP: This is to confuse the threat that we face today with the threats we may face in the period from 2025 to 2055 – the lifespan of the successor to our present Trident fleet. Twenty years ago, at the height of the Second Cold War, it would have seemed crazy to predict that suicidal fundamentalist terrorism would be our principal concern now. Who can possibly know what the situation will be 20, 30 or 40 years hence? Just as it makes no sense to scrap the Army, Royal Navy or RAF when no obvious enemy is in sight, it is vital to retain a minimum strategic deterrent as the ultimate insurance policy against aggression by any future opponent armed with mass-destruction weapons. No amount of conventional forces can protect us in such a situation, and no conventional campaigns can be risked against an aggressor possessing even one or two nuclear bombs if we abandon all of ours. [For a full statement of the argument, please see here.]
SC: Can more precise weapons such as Tomahawk missiles (which are roughly fifty times cheaper than Trident missiles) not fulfil some of the functions of nuclear missiles?
JL: Not cost-effectively. Tomahawk cruise missiles have only a single warhead. Submarines would still have to be built to carry them on dedicated, continuous at-sea patrols. More submarines would be needed than in the case of Trident in order to deploy a comparable number of warheads. Cruise missiles, being subsonic, are also much more vulnerable to interception and destruction. New missiles and warheads would have to be designed at considerable extra expense. Above all, as Tomahawk’s range is far less than that of the Trident missiles (which are themselves highly accurate), the submarines would have to come much closer to their targets, making them and their crews more liable to detection.
SC: In a world of nuclear proliferation, shouldn't we be putting missile defence systems at the top of our budget priorities?
JL: No. Missile defences may have a modest role as an adjunct to deterrence, but they are no substitute for it. It is of the nature of mass-destruction weapons that only a small number need reach their targets to be able to inflict unacceptable damage. A ballistic missile defence shield would therefore make a significant difference only if we were dealing with an enemy armed with just a few nuclear-tipped rockets. If we believe – as we do – in the effectiveness of our minimum deterrent, which often has just a single submarine and 48 warheads deployed, we cannot with consistency regard ABM defences as likely to be effective against any enemy who acquires a substantial nuclear arsenal and a reliable delivery system.
SC: Wouldn't unilaterally deactivating our nuclear capability earn us respect around the world, and set a similar moral standard to the one we set when abolishing slavery?
JL: I’m no expert on the history of slavery, but see plenty of opponents giving us no credit at all for abolishing it! It would be just the same if we abandoned our nuclear protection one-sidedly: those people least likely to attack us might praise us to the skies; but the ones about whom we really have to worry would hold any such gesture in contempt.
SC: Are you convinced of the operational independence of Trident? Is it important?
JL: What matters, with any weapons system, is not who supplies it but who possesses and controls it. There is no dependence on the United States, with whom we have a shared ‘pool’ of Trident missiles (though manufacturing our own submarines and warheads), so far as launching a retaliatory strike is concerned. Any enemy trying to blackmail us with the threat of mass-destruction weapons knows that we can respond with horrendous effect, even if the USA declined to be involved in our predicament.
SC: Would you ever be prepared to give the order to launch reactive nuclear strikes, knowing millions of people would die?
JL: This is the classic nuclear variant on “When did you stop beating your wife?” If deterrence is successfully maintained then that decision should never have to be taken. I can just as easily challenge the unilateralists whether they would still scrap all our nuclear weapons if it meant an enemy killing millions in an attack on us. It is all a matter of judging which policy, chosen now, is most likely to prevent a war in the future.