Across the UK, the debate is heating up on whether to renew the Trident nuclear defence of submarines, missiles and warheads. Supporters of Trident unite around the imperative of maintaining a nuclear deterrent well into 21st Century and that it is folly to surrender such status. It's an appealing narrative to some but one that deeply troubles me since we run the risk of bequeathing a very different Britain to our children as a result. Because make no mistake, we're talking about a very different Royal Navy should the government put the nuclear deterrent at the forefront of our future defences.
For a start, Trident was forged by the Cold War thinking of the early 1980s, whereas the security threats of the 21st Century have long been diverging from the geopolitics of Mutually Assured Destruction. In truth, they demand a truly resurgent Royal Navy. And while the MoD is tight lipped about alternatives to Trident, former senior military officers are not averse to going public. Most recently Major General Patrick Cordingley, who led British forces in the first Gulf War, said "Strategic nuclear weapons have no military use" and that Trident was "simply to remain a nuclear power alongside the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council" Crucially, he added that the UK has "more to offer than nuclear bombs".
He better be right. Because as an academic studying sustainability and human resilience, I know the impacts of climate change will come to dominate military planning of the new Trident era. Swathes of the planet will become uninhabitable as crops fail and sea levels rise, forcing entire populations to literally seek survival and self-determination elsewhere. Living with such risks and global uncertainties requires a thoroughly resurgent Royal Navy. One with the financial clout to attract and develop the best talent and deploy the best equipment. But that's not what the UK government has in mind. Expect instead multi-billion pound Trident cost overruns and corresponding cuts to fleet and sailor numbers.
My father was a Lieutenant Commander who served on eight ships - one of which I was christened on. So it worries me that at a time we need to rejuvenate the Royal Navy to face contemporary threats we might divert tens of billions for a totem of powers past. Worse still, we will make ourselves a target. That's because nuclear threats today are from terrorists getting hold of a nuclear device. We know that terrorists are evil. But they are not un-calculating. If they set off a nuclear bomb in a country with no nuclear weapons, such as Singapore, they might wipe out that country, but the world would not be gripped by fear of impending nuclear war. And terrorists seek to create terror. Therefore they are more likely to hit a nuclear-armed country so that internal panic would create demands for in-kind retaliation and the world be gripped with the fear of escalation.
The mainstream debate in the UK is currently extremely poor. The BBC's Robert Peston and Andrew Neil lampooned the idea of Vanguard submarines without nuclear warheads. The Royal Navy finds important military uses for seven Astute class submarines with conventional warheads. A debate could be had about whether Vanguard submarines could give additional conventional capabilities. At least conventional warheads can be made in Britain. Made in USA, we are expected to believe that the manufacturers have not put a backdoor application in the Trident missile systems to stop the missiles being fired if the US government does not consent?
The muddled thinking can get quite creative. Labour MP Stella Creasy says she wants to renew Trident so Britain has clout on future disarmament negotiations when those negotiations have already given us the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which we could uphold by not renewing Trident.
The history of business innovation shows that most established organisations generate stale bureaucracies, staffed by senior people who stick to old routines and assumptions. In proposing a renewal of Trident might some Ministry of Defence officials be exhibiting the habits of incumbency? We aren't allowed a start-up Ministry of Defence, staffed by millennials with the latest tech working out how to provide effective solutions to 21st Century threats. Instead we live with decisions by chaps with posh accents who feel at home in wooden panelled rooms.
Having grown up in the Navy cities of Portsmouth and Plymouth, I'm fascinated by our Naval history, it's just I don't want to repeat its mistakes. Take HMS Warrior. In the 1800s they were proud of how it appeared to express Naval power, being one of the first iron clad warships in the world. Yet ship design had moved on, as with steel you didn't need to use old hull designs. So HMS Warrior never saw action.
At least it brings tourists to the dockyard in Portsmouth today. If Trident is renewed Portsmouth will see a negative impact on its local economy, as fleet and sailor numbers are cut. That economic impact has been ignored, with the focus being on Barrow-in-Furness, where the subs are built. Currently Barrow's shipyard is thriving, through the building of our Astute class submarines. However the economic linkages to the rest of the economy, through use of local suppliers, is very limited and the area remains poor. Now is the time that Barrow politicians should be seizing the initiative, not only by seeking guarantees for future orders of submarines, no matter if they carry nuclear warheads. Rather, this is an opportunity to engage Westminster elites to make commitments to the diversification of the economy in southern Cumbria.
So here is an idea. As part of any deal on the future of Trident, the MoD should move its headquarters and key staff to Barrow. Not only would it help Barrow thrive, and bring in huge sums from selling the building on Whitehall, it would also be a great way to clear out that dead wood at the MoD so it evolves in line with the security threats of the 21st Century.
Renewing Trident will not de facto keep us safe. Conversely, it risks sacrificing the naval power that tomorrow's security risks demand. True patriotism involves engaging with the way the world is, not playing old war games with taxpayers' billions.
Professor Bendell is the founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability and a consultant to UN agencies. He writes in a personal capacity not representing his employer
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