THE BLOG

Trident Is Unsafe, And It's Not Just The Misfired Missiles

08/02/2017 17:12 GMT | Updated 08/02/2017 17:12 GMT
PA/PA Wire

The recent news of misfired nuclear missiles, the ensuing government cover-up, and sustained silence about a serious accident, was symbolic of a wider truth: our decision makers haven't got a grip on the truth about Trident, Britain's nuclear weapons system.

Though the misfires remind us that catastrophic nuclear accidents are a very real and present danger, some still argue that these risks are worth it to defend national security. But is that really the role Trident plays? This is the question we try to answer in our new Security not Trident report, released on Tuesday.

In it we argue that real security begins with an honest account of the security threats we face in 21st century Britain. On this we agree with the government's National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security review assessment: the main threats are terrorism, climate change, cyber-attacks and global health security.

It's far from clear, however, in which ways Trident responds to these challenges. Far clearer are the threats and vulnerabilities posed by the Trident system itself.

We now know that Trident is vulnerable to emerging underwater drone technology. One of the big arguments in favour of submarines as a 'platform' for carrying our nuclear weapons has been that they are undetectable under water. When the current system was being built in the 1980s and 1990s, no doubt that was the case. But in the 21st century, how can anyone imagine that a massive metal submarine can remain undetected?

As former Defence Secretary Lord Browne warned in 2015, citing a cyber resilience report from the US's Department of Defence, Trident could be rendered obsolete by cyber-attacks. The worst case scenario is a hostile, cyber take-over of our nuclear weapons system. This is more likely to succeed if an adversary manages to install a malware programme during the building phase that would activate at a later date.

We still routinely hear Trident described as Britain's independent deterrent. The truth is it's neither independent nor a deterrent.

Decades of conflict have proved that Trident doesn't deter war. As former British Army officer General Sir Hugh Beach says 'of the 190 states party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) all but five have committed themselves to non-nuclear weapon status permanently. Many of them have the economic, industrial and scientific capacity to become nuclear weapon states if they wished, but have chosen not to. They seem to have suffered no disadvantage from nuclear blackmail. In fact non-nuclear weapon states have often defied possessor states.'

Some MPs voted in favour of replacing Trident on the false belief that Britain's nuclear weapons are a symbol of the country's independence and ability to act alone. But Trident is neither politically nor technically independent. Much of the system relies on technical support from the United States. The missiles are leased from them; the UK warhead is a copy of the US one, with some components directly bought from Washington. It is inconceivable to imagine a British Prime Minister firing a nuclear missile without permission from the American President, and the rest of the world knows this.

It will always be a government's priority to keep its citizens safe. But what is true security in the 21st century? As the world becomes more inter-linked than ever before, it is becoming the norm to cooperate with other states on the challenges facing us, rather than battle against each other. The actual security threats identified by the government and in this report are complex and will not be solved overnight. But Britain does have the capability to overcome them.

What the country does not need is to spend billions replacing Trident. Disarming could not only provide political leadership to the rest of the nuclear-armed states, but would be a practical guide for how to do it, a blueprint for the rest of the world drafted by our experts and politicians. Britain disarming could even provide impetus to the United Nations' plans for a nuclear weapons-free world. A treaty to ban all nuclear weapons will be negotiated in March and June 2017, which will force the nuclear states to confront their possession of these weapons.

This would be the vital first step to Britain rethinking its approach to security in the twenty-first century.